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A Look Behind the Creative Process

Professor’s research on “Aha” moment featured in The New Yorker and TIME

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Northwestern University’s Mark Beeman’s research on the role insight -- or the “Eureka” moment -- plays in creativity, got great play recently in articles in The New Yorker and Time.

Beeman, professor of psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, director of undergraduate studies and primary major adviser of the Cognitive Science Program at Northwestern, has made great headway in research revealing how the brain produces “insight.”

In particular, Beeman studies “insight” solutions to problems, experienced as “Aha” or “Eureka” moments, which seemingly come out of the blue. 

Coming up with new ideas is a creative process, and “insight” is only one part of that process, he said in the article in The New Yorker. “But we can measure it.”

Insight arrives at a specific moment in time and can be isolated and examined through a temporal marker that indicates something has just happened in the brain. “I’d never say that’s all of creativity, but it’s a central, identifiable component,” Beeman said.

Read The New Yorker article, titled “Where Do Eureka Moments Come From?” 

Read the TIME article, titled “Be More Productive – By Doing Less.”

The new work, led by Carola Salvi, a visiting graduate student from Italy, supplemented Beeman's past work measuring brain activity by measuring a person’s gaze. Eye-blinks, where people looked and for how long all indicated when a solution was near and how the problem was likely to be solved. These measures are directly linked to attention. “Your state of attention both before you get a problem and when you’re solving it matters,” Beeman said in the TIME article. 

Beeman noted that although the brain may appear idle during daydreaming, for example, it is in fact still working, and seems more prepared to tap a greater array of mental resources than are used during more methodical thinking.

In short, Beeman and his colleagues suggest that we need to make room in our lives for two distinctly different kinds of mental activity -- the focused and the unfocused.