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Those Light Bulb Moments, Where Do They Come From?

Updated on October 29, 2012

Light Bulb Moments

Some ideas come to us spontaneously.
Some ideas come to us spontaneously. | Source

Where Did the Phrase "Eureka" Come From?

The story goes something like this: Archimedes, the ancient Greek scientist in the 3rd century, B.C., was asked by the King to tell him if his crown was made of pure gold. Archimedes had to find out if it was real. Archimedes was baffled as to how to figure this out, since they had very limited ability to test the chemical composition of things. On a particular day, Archimedes was taking a bath, and it suddenly occurred to him that his body was weightless in water and that a body loses a little weight in water. A bigger volume will lose more weight. All of a sudden, he realized, he could weight the King’s crown and compare the loss of weight in water and this would tell hime if the gold were pure. Archimedes got so excited, he knew for sure he found the answer. He was so exicted, he ran to tell the woman he loved. So into the streets he ran, totally naked, yelling Eureka, to tell her he found the answer. To this day, when someone suddenly solves a problem, we call it a “Eureka” moment. It is also known as Arhimedes’ Principle.

These are those light bulb moments. Suddenly, out of thin air, we get an idea, a solution we have been waiting for. Those “eureka” moments, so priceless and so valuable.

What Research Tells Us

Recently scientists at two different universities have found the proof that there is a difference in our cognitive processes when we have these eye opening insights compared to our other cognitive processes.

Sophisticated imaging has revealed that there is specific regions of the brain that light up when we get a new idea and become enlightened. Studies done in Northwestern University and Drexel University have shown that the brain has distinct neural and computational mechanisms occurring that lead to these “aha” moments. The researchers had participants work on 144 simple problems, some requiring the ability to use insight and some to be solved with a eureka moment. The researchers used fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging), which allowed them to see activity in the brain. When the participants had a light bulb moment, a specific area of the brain lit up (the right temporal lobe). When they were just using normal thought processes, that area of the brain did not light up. It is the right temporal lobe that is linked to complex language. The light bulb moment occurs when we make a connection with information that we already know but don’t recognize we know it until we realize it suddenly. When an EEG (electroencephalogram) was used, it picked up high frequency brain waves that are usually related to complex thoughts. When we gain insight, we have neural activity that is different from other thought processes.

think outside of the box creativity innovation insight when the answer comes to you suddenly making the connection

Researchers have found that when we get a light bulb moment, a surge of electrical activity goes off in our brain. Studies have shown that there are distinct changes in brain activity when we are using our creativity, compared to regular problem solving.

The Magic of Insight

That insight experience is both mysterious and magical. It is difficult to explain where the brilliant and instananeous ideas come from. When researchers have observed people’s brains on fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) while they solved puzzles that involved insight, they found that insight activated a specific area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex. Even though the answer seemed to appear out of nowhere, the mind set a series of motions in process that helped prepare the answer. This suddeness may come from the feeling that there is a burst of brain activity before the realization. Further studies have shown that insight comes more easily when people are amused. Humor, it is believed, puts people in a more positive mood, and makes the brain more capable of making unrelated connections.

When a person does a puzzle , the brain shifts into a different mode, knowing that this puzzle is solvable.

In a humor study, college students were asked to solve word association puzzles. First they watched a short video of a comedy routine with Robin Williams. The students solved more of the puzzles with sudden insight. When they watched a boring or scary video, they showed no insight to problem solving. Researchers believe that people in positive moods were able to pick up more background detail with the visual areas of their brain. Positive moods, it has been found, helps encourage better problem solving through creativity. It appears a person who thinks positively can think more broadly and see a bigger picture.

The Mind and Our Thinking Patterns

Science is trying to learn the root causes of our innovative thoughts. As we learn more, the workplace of the future may be designed to foster an environment of creativity and sponta neous thought.

What makes light bulb moments so fascinating is that these answers come out of thin air, and as soon we recognize them, we are very confident this is the answer we have been looking for. Like a revelation, these moments of insight come upon us and give us a sense of certainty that this is the solution.

What science does know, is that light bulb moments come when people are feeling relaxed, are in a good mood, and are open minded.
3M, gives every engineer who works for them, an hour each day to do what they want to do. They can choose to work on something personal like a hobby, or a side project. They are not asked by their boss what they are doing because 3M understands they are allowing creativity to grow.

Insight at moments when we least expect it. It usually happens after we have stepped away from the situation. When we get stuck, or overworked, we get frustrated, tired, and unproductive. By taking a break, we can relax our mind, and approach the situation with a fresh perspective. Often our thinking patterns are habitual. Habits help us do things without putting as much energy into thoughts. Habits make our lives simpler and more efficient, but don’t allow us think out of the box.

Think Out of the Box

Help yourself to think out of the box.
Help yourself to think out of the box. | Source

How Can You Have More Light Bulb Moments

These light bulb moments are really about creativity and a matter of thinking out of the box. But light bulb moments are much more because it leads to a new discovery. Light bulb moments come from a different pattern of thinking, which is much different than the pattern that is used for ordinary problem solving. Many great inventors have had light bulb moments, but anyone can think like this, and the more practice, the better a person can doing it. This type of thinking has a component of mental flexibility and usually pops in when we are most relaxed. Tension and stress block this kind of thinking.

David Perkins, an author, broke down these eureka moments into a five step process.

  • the search for a problem slight progress
  • a person is stumped
  • something triggers a realization and the problem is reframed
  • breakthrough thinking happens
  • a transformation takes place and we gain insight

In order to gain insight, our minds need to be open to explore new possibilities. A wandering mind is open to new discoveries, and to be able to see something that wasn’t there before. Often, a relaxed mind can look at things from a different angle. A new perspective stops the constraints that holds a person back from a new realization. ‘Out of the box thinking’, allows a person to step away, and see the problem from a differet perspective and this can help a person to find the long sought answer.

Brainstorming is the free flowing expression of ideas. Successful brainstorming happens when there are no judgments made about new ideas. Brainstorming sessions allow ideas to just be tossed out and to move onto the next idea.

Bluma Zeigarnik, a Russian psychologist showed in 1927, that we retain unsolved problems in our memory. It is known as the Zeigarnik Effect. Our mind holds this in our short term memory. Once the problem is solved, we may not retain it. Albert Einstein was not able to understand how these light bulb moments happen, but he knew he experienced it. Yet intellect has very little to do with this sudden and insightful thinking. It is a phenomen of our brain, and all of us have benefitted greatly from it.
So how can you have more of these light bulb moments? You can improve your ability to gain insight by reflecting on the situation. Give yourself a quiet area where you can even meditate and pray. Spend some time relaxing, doing what pleases you, or working on a hobby. Be ‘in the moment’. Experience what is going on right now. Envision yourself experiencing a positive outcome. Let yourself feel a passion, an enthusiasm, and and excitement. Write down some ideas, so you create your own brainstorming session. Take it a step at a time. If the problem is too big to swallow, you can overwhelm yourself. Use your intuition and believe in yourself. By doing these things, it is very likely you will have a Eureka moment at the most unexpected time.


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    • Ruby H Rose profile image

      Maree Michael Martin 5 years ago from Northwest Washington on an Island

      I love your food for thought, thanks!

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 5 years ago

      Thanks Audrey. Hopefully it won't be as bad as they are saying. But we are not used to weather like this, so it is somewhat unnerving. Last year, we had Hurricane Irene, this seems much much worse. School and college has been cancelled for my kids. My work is closed. We are watching the weather get worse. As long as I am connected, HubPages is a comfort to me. Thanks for the good thoughts and when you get a light bulb moment, let me know.

    • akirchner profile image

      Audrey Kirchner 5 years ago from Washington

      Be safe! My daughter and I were just emailing about it---I will hope for a minor bit of trouble for y'all back there and hope to see you back soon!!! All good thoughts light bulb and otherwise coming your way!

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 5 years ago

      Hi Audrey, thanks for sharing your experiences. It makes a lot of sense that your light bulb moments happen when you are not thinking so hard. It goes with what my hub is saying. When you relax, do a hobby, and let your mind expand, you can be more creative and insightful. Thanks for stopping by. I just want to let you know, right now I am in the midst of this hurricane that is hitting New York. The weather is getting worse, if my electricity and cable go out I will be cut off from HubPages temporarily. They are warning us it could take up to 10 days to get it back. Hopefully this won't happen, but if I am not in contact for a short while, you will know why.

    • akirchner profile image

      Audrey Kirchner 5 years ago from Washington

      Fascinating, Rhonda--I only wish I had more light bulb moments~ Strangely, I seem to have them when I sleep. I am a ruminator on many levels---always thinking about how best to make something better so when something is bothering me, I think about it a lot. For instance, if I have trouble with a program, I dwell on it now and again but then I find when I go to sleep, it launches itself right up front in my mind. Miraculously, sometimes I can solve it in my sleep and when I wake up - luckily thus far--knocking on wood--the answer is still there and usually when I try it, it works. Now if ONLY this would work on interpersonal problems....that would be gravy~~! I find my light bulb moments do occur for me though when I'm not actively thinking SO hard about it--does that make sense to anyone? I'm not sure it does but that's how it works for me!

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 5 years ago

      Hi Alecia, It is true that the more relaxed we are, the more we are able to think creatively. So I hope you are relaxing and waiting for that next light bulb moment.

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 5 years ago

      Hi Carol, Thanks for your kind comments, up votes and for sharing. I always appreciate when you stop by.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Well I hope we both have several surges of electricity in our brains today! Great information; quite interesting and educational my friend. I did not know the specifics of this, so thank you for the new information. Well done!

    • Alecia Murphy profile image

      Alecia Murphy 5 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

      This is very fascinating. The way the human brain functions is amazing. For me, I feel like what you said is true- remaining open minded and relaxed. I get ideas when I don't actively search for them. I enjoyed reading this. Voting up, useful, and interesting!

    • carol7777 profile image

      carol stanley 5 years ago from Arizona

      I found this really interesting and I have often wondered where this moments come from. I do know that if you are brainstorming with people the mind is open to new ideas . And being relaxed is always good for getting one of those moments..maybe that is why they often occur in dreams. Voting up++++ and this is certainly a good hub to share.