Let’s Make Room for Eureka Moments

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Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg advised this year’s graduating Harvard class to distrust “the idea of a single eureka moment”—that instance when “a lone thinker has a groundbreaking epiphany.” In a June 11 New York Times article, Dr. John Kounios, author of The Eureka Factor, took issue with Zuckerberg's statement and inspired this blog.

A eureka moment, also known as the ‘aha’ experience, is a sudden solution to a baffling problem that has plagued an individual for some time. Suddenly, the answer seems to appear from thin air or nowhere at all.

The Greek word eureka actually means “I found it” and stems the days of ancient Greece, when Archimedes stepped into his bath and noticed that the volume of the water displaced was equivalent to the volume of his submerged body. In his joy, he raced through the streets crying, “Eureka.”

This leap of thought (also referred to as an epiphany) may change the life of an individual, a nation or even the world. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., wrote, “A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience.”

Scientists, artists and philosophers have described their eureka moments including Isaac Newton, who elucidated the theory of gravity, Paul McCartney who composed many Beatles’ ballads, and the Buddha, who came up with an explanation for human suffering.

(In earlier writings, I’ve described one of my Eureka moments, as I broke out of my narcissistic shell to perceive that I was not indeed the center of the world. We can only pray that our president will have this kind of eureka awakening).

Why, then, did Zuckerberg debunk these moments? My guess is that he doesn’t fully grasp the experience. Certainly, eureka episodes don’t happen overnight; they’re the culmination of time spent stewing on problems. Scientist Louis Pasteur, father of the germ theory, discoverer of vaccination and pasteurization, clearly indicated his understanding when he said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” In his book, Kounios details the typically long and arduous path toward the eureka experience, including the stages of immersion, impasse and diversion preceding the aha moment.

In other words, hours to years of thought and discipline may lead up to these joyful eureka moments. Much goes on in the brain beyond our conscious awareness.

Although the eureka phenomenon has been a bit controversial, now brain-imaging studies support its validity. These moments are associated with a burst of high-frequency activity in the brain’s right temporal lobe. And the highlight is preceded by a “brain blink” signifying that the individual has been less aware of the environment. These patterns aren’t seen during analytic thinking.

Interestingly, this brain pattern coincides with what some of today’s great minds do to foster this thinking. Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and SpaceX, cherishes moments of silence with himself in the shower. Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, spends a month by himself in a cabin. During these solitary moments, they are less aware of the environment and open the an aha insight.

Conclusion: Our minds commonly fall into the trap of either/or thinking, but to solve our problems that loom ever larger and more complex, we best embrace the full capacity of our brain that includes analytic thinking and sudden insight. There is no downside to the uplifting experience of a Eureka moment.