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Insights

Go Fly a Kite. Or Take a Walk (or a Shower)

Wednesday, April 10, 2019
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“The software can do this? Why was I so afraid to try it? I can create e-learning on my own; it’s not as complicated as I thought!”

Doesn’t it feel great when we have those “aha” moments—moments when it all just seems to come together without any real effort? How do those moments happen, and can we do anything to make more of them in our lives? Or in the lives of learners when we act as a facilitator or instructional designer?

Not putting any real effort into the moment is, in fact, one of the keys. In “Neuroscience Provides Fresh Insight Into the ‘Aha’ Moment,” David Rock writes about just that in terms of solving a challenging problem: “Effort tends to involve a lot of electrical activity, and this activity can reduce the likelihood of noticing the quiet signals of insight. The point is that you have to let go of the problem for the solution to come to you.”

In their research into insight, experts Mark Jung-Beeman, John Kounios, Ed Bowden, and others determined that a certain area of the brain was involved with aha, or eureka, moments—“eureka” being the term Archimedes purportedly exclaimed when he came to understand water displacement (yes, while he was taking a bath). Insightful moments, the researchers found, may be invoked in a specific area of the right cerebral hemisphere: the anterior superior temporal gyrus. That region of the brain is, as Kounios and Beeman write in “The Aha! Moment: The Neural Basis of Solving Problems with Insight,” “involved in insight because it seems critical for tasks that require recognizing broad associative semantic relationships—exactly the type of process that could facilitate reinterpretation of problems and lead to insight.”

So, with that scientific explanation, there are some activities—and lack thereof, as we’ve already discussed in not exerting any effort—that seem to allow insights to occur.

White Space

You’ve likely heard about good ideas coming to a person when they’re taking a shower (or bath). In that space and time, our minds are generally free from trying to solve a problem or contemplate a chore or task.

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As Ronni Hendel-Giller writes in the Medium column, “Creating Aha Moments—Exploring Insight,” “Taking time out—walking away when we’re stuck, and allowing others (our team members, for example) to do something undemanding or relaxing—is a great way to improve the chances of a breakthrough.”

And in her Brain World article, “The Aha! Moment: The Science Behind Creative Insight,” Lauren Migliore writes, “Relax, unwind, and free your mind from obstruction. We often assume that if we don’t notice our thoughts, they don’t exist, but this is actually when we may be thinking the most creatively.”

As a facilitator, you may want to build in breaks between sharing a challenge with learners and having them actually work on it.

Safe Space

The anxious brain is not likely to come up with aha moments. Curiosity also helps set the stage for insight, and a person who is anxious won’t be curious. So, go to a space that feels safe—or, if you’re a facilitator, work to create a space in which learners will feel safe. Make sure learners know it’s OK to give a “wrong” answer or to make a mistake on their learning journey.

People—whether employees or learners—who are engaged and happy are more likely to have insight. So, create a work environment that is conducive to innovation, insights, and aha moments—where people are free to be themselves, aren’t separated from the rest of their lives, and feel at ease to express their ideas.

Simple, Repetitive Actions, to Include Simple Games

Brainstorming as a group often creates a lot of mental noise, notes Rock in his “Neuroscience Provides Fresh Insight” article—just the opposite of what is needed for creativity and ideas. He suggests you outline a question for the group (or for yourself), then “take time out to do something interesting (but repetitive and simple) for a while, and allow your nonconscious brain to do the solving for you.”

Physical Activity, Such as Walking

Walking, but also such activities as gardening or housecleaning, tend to allow the mind to wander—just the thing that is needed for insight. David Rock and Josh Davis write in their Harvard Business Review article, “ 4 Steps to Having More ‘Aha’ Moments,” that “Exercise is a foolproof way to take your mind off work, so put a daily workout on your calendar the same way you would schedule a meeting with a client or boss.”

A common theme of these suggestions, in addition to refraining from thinking about the problem at hand? While another person can set the stage by scheduling a break or making others feel relaxed, the insight itself must come from the individual. An ATD course participant revealed their aha moment: “The biggest thing I will take away from today is what was mentioned by the facilitator time and time again. . . . Don’t do for the learner what they can do for themselves. I have been working too hard for my learners in the past!”

About the Author

Patty Gaul is a senior writer/editor for the Association for Talent Development (ATD).

4 Comments
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It turns out that we've always intuitively known about these sudden "flashes" of insight. There really are lights going off in our heads - millions of neurons connecting to each other through electro-chemical charges. What a beautiful thing!
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Thank you for sharing this series of science based thoughts about learning!
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Thank you for sharing this series of science based thoughts about learning!
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