The ‘aha moment’- Five tips to increase your moments of insight

I have been fascinated with the ‘aha moment’ ever since learning about the coaching process whilst working in this space previously.

How great’s that feeling you get when a flash of insight emerges and you get a breakthrough in your thinking?!

I have wondered what happens in the brain when an insight occurs.

In his book ‘Your Brain at Work’ (which I highly recommend), David Rock summarises the science of the aha moment citing researchers including Beeman and Ohlsson . A few quotes below:

When insights occur, they seem to involve unconscious processing. That makes sense from experience – insights often come from nowhere and at the most unusual time, when you are putting in no conscious effort to solve a problem – such as in the shower, at the gym, or driving on the freeway. This knowledge about insights provides a possible strategy for increasing creativity: let your subconscious brain solve the problem. And when you take a walk in the middle of your workday, you now have hard science to explain this when your boss looks at your funny.”

“Ohlsson’s principle of inhibition explains why insights come in the shower or the swimming pool. It’s nothing to do with the water. When you take a break from a problem, your active ways of thinking diminish. This seems to work even at the level for a few moments. Try an experiment: next time you’re working on a crossword or other word game, when you get stuck, do something totally different for a few seconds (anything as simple as tying your shoes or stretching; the main thing is not to think about the problem). Then come back to the problem and see what happens. I predict you may notice how sometimes the prefrontal cortex, your conscious processing capacity, is itself the problem. Get it out of the way, and the solution appears.”

“This quirk of the brain also explains why other people can often see answers to your problem that you can’t. Others are not locked into your way of thinking. Knowing a problem too well can be the reason you can’t find a solution. Sometimes we need a fresh perspective. This is an unusual concept, as normally we think the best person to solve a problem is the one who knows everything about it. With so many impasses* each day at work, perhaps what’s needed are more thinking partnerships, where one person has a lot of detail and the other very little. Together they can come up with solutions faster than either can his own.”

*Impasse = a roadblock to a desired mental path. It’s a connection you want to make but can’t.

For those interested in learning more, David Rock has developed the ARIA model, which stands for Awareness, Reflection, Insight and Action which describes the stages of an insight and practical techniques for increasing their likelihood.

So how can we increase our number of aha moments? Five tips below:

  1. Take a break and change your environment / activity
  2. Create a fun environment – there’s a reason why organisations including google look to create a fun environment to heighten creativity
  3. Engage with a coach / thinking partner to help shift your thinking
  4. Meditate to help quieten your mind
  5. Journal and map out the big picture including any patterns instead of focusing on the problem details

From my own experience, I know that I have more moments of insight at work when I take an exercise or meditation break, move floors to a new space or speak to someone on something completely unrelated.

So why is this important?

I think, our ability to think is going to continue to be a career differentiater, especially in light of artificial intelligence.

I realise a common thread in the Leaders / Coaches / Entrepreneurs I most admire is the way they think. I remember Steve Vamos (now CEO of Xero) saying ‘Think about how you think.’

As David Rock says ‘Insights are the engine of the economy.’

Here’s to us all creating the space to have more insights 🙂

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