"Aha" moments are seen on a regular basis by UNE Discovery facilitators Photo: Simon Scott
Breaking down “Aha” moments

“Aha!” moments – something we see all too often in the facilitation of Discovery activities. Students’ faces reacting with such creative insight, it often produces a whole-body response, a sudden jolt as the lightbulb switches on. “Ohhhhh yeahhh!” the say, and wow is it rewarding for us.

It is likely you too have experienced these moments, whether it be working on a relative problem or solving that pesky number 23 Down in the Sunday crossword. The feeling of confusion followed by a sudden realisation often produces feelings of surprise, yet confidence. The ‘you can do it’, coming from the depths of our neurological pathways. As the facilitator of our neuroscience activities, and lover of all things brain, for me these realisations produce a curiosity and an itch to find out exactly what is going on up there. To have my own “Aha!” moment.

The feeling of an "aha" moment, or insight, is a neurological reward for learning Photo: Simon Scott

Formally known as insight, these moments are integral phenomena; not only throughout our younger years as seen in our budding scientists, but as we get older as well. Continual learning is essential for the stimulation of the 100 billion neurons [1] that make up that fantastic organ, the brain, and allows for the expansion of our mind and perspectives – it physically changes our brains. Dr. Norman Doidge is a bit of a neuroscience icon amongst some of us in the team and discusses the different effects of learning in his books [2]. As a research psychologist, Doidge explores our brain as a ‘plastic’ organ and its ability to change itself in response to various stimuli, which promises to overthrow the century-old notions that our brains are fixed and unchanged, that they are hardwired like computers (Doidge, 2007). Repeated throughout his discussions with scientists championing neuroplasticity [3] is the notion of ‘fire together, wire together’ (Hebb, 1949). For a quick crash course in neuroscience: our brain cells, or neurons, talk to one another via something called synaptic transmission – that means one brain cell releases a chemical, while the adjacent cell absorbs it, forming a chain of messages that can move in any given direction. When certain cells talk frequently, the connection between them gets stronger and stronger, and with enough repetition they become automatic. So, things like riding a bike are ingrained because we’ve practiced, fired those brain cells repeatedly, and now that brain map has wired together. Unfortunately, the same goes for fire apart, wire apart, and if we don’t utilise the things we’ve learned, or stop learning altogether, those connections tend to degrade, and we may forget how to do specific things.  As Doidge (2007) states, “If we stop exercising our mental skills, we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead.” As humans, we are not designed to stop absorbing new information. This is why the “Aha!” moments are not only so important, but so rewarding. We are being rewarded for learning, and scientists think they have figured out why.

As humans, we are not designed to stop absorbing new information. This is why the “Aha!” moments are not only so important, but so rewarding.

Psychologists have studied these moments in depth using behavioural methods for decades, however recently the tools of cognitive neuroscience including EEG’s and fMRI’s [4] have been utilised to investigate the correlation between what’s going on in our brains during an “Aha!” moment, and what’s going on prior (Kounios and Beeman, 2009). Researchers used a type of problem called compound remote associates, allowing them to compare the brain activity of participants using insight in contrast to regular analytical solving, the step-by-step approach. Despite the daunting name, I dare say you would have come across these before, so let’s see if we can do one right here, right now. Don’t stress, it’s just a little brain teaser.

Below are three words. These can be combined with a single fourth word – either in front or behind – to form a familiar word or phrase.

crab            pine            sauce

What is the fourth word [5]? Did you get that exciting feeling when you found the answer? Did it pop into awareness, or did you have to complete it by process of elimination?

Even though this quick question may have only taken you around 20 seconds to complete your brain activity would have been peaking in various areas, glowing with electrical activity, which in the case of the research participants allowed the scientists to determine exactly how they reached their “Aha!” moment. So, what did they find? Distinct patterns of brain activity could be seen preceding problems solved with insight versus those solved analytically (Kounios and Beeman, 2009). In other words, the patterns suggest there is a priming of brain areas that compute language and thought processing immediately prior to having that moment of insight. This specific priming shows us that participants’ brains narrowed down on potential solutions, subconsciously [6] sifting through ideas without having to undergo arduous analytical procedures. When the amount of evidence backing the answer reaches a certain threshold, it jumps over into conscious thought and we are warmly greeted by an idea that appears to have just come to us. This explains why we are so surprised when the answer springs to mind.

A disassembled model brain, used by students to explore different brain regions in our neuroscience activities Photo: Andrea Jaggi

But what does this mean for learning? Can we trust an insight? Good news for the sceptics – research says more often than not we can! In several experiments undertaken looking into the accuracy of insight derived answers, “Aha!” solutions were correct 94% of the time compared with 78% for analytical solutions (Salvi, Bricolo, Kounios, Bowden and Beeman, 2014). Because insights are computed subconsciously, there is less room for indecisiveness and overthinking; whereas with analytical processes that occur consciously, we may always be thinking if there is an alternate answer, which may lead to rushing and lapses in reasoning. Interestingly in much of this research, participants who had more insights didn’t rush to find immediate solutions. They found those answering analytically rushed to answer the question before the deadline, which as a result lead to mistakes (Salvi, et al., 2014).

This means that when we are searching for a creative or innovative idea, it is often best to allow answers to gestate in our unconscious mind rather than throwing answers around flippantly. Naturally, some decisions require analytical thinking, and this cannot be excused, however, if we relate this to learning environments we see today, providing students with appropriate questioning and time allow an insight to come to mind can provide for a solid learning experience. Often signs of confusion can be a precursor to a moment of insight, and recognition of this may just allow for that moment of “Aha!” satisfaction to rear its head and provide confidence to wire those neurons and keep on learning!

– By Andrea Jaggi, Discovery Team Member and lover of all things brain

Author Andrea Jaggi runs UNE Discovery's neuroscience activities Photo: Simon Scott


[1] Fancy word for nerve.

[2] Dr. Norman Doidge, author of “The Brain that Changes Itself” and “The Brain’s Way of Healing”

[3] Neuroplasticity is the idea that our brains are malleable and can form new connections and pathways in response to new learning and experience.

[4] EEG, or electroencephalography – record of electrical activity in the brain. fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging, measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow in the brain.

[5] The fourth word is apple!! This combines to give us crab apple, pineapple and apple sauce.

[6] Our subconscious is the part of our minds not in focal awareness. It processes information when we are not actively doing so.


Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itslelf. United States: Viking Press.

Hebb, D. O. (1949). The Organisation of Behaviour. New Jersey: Wiley.

Kounios, J., & Beeman, M. (2009). The Aha! Moment: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Insight. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(4), 210-216.

Salvi, C., Bricolo, E., Kounios, J., Bowden, E., & Beeman, M. (2014). Insight solutions are correct more often than analytic solutions. Thinking and Reasoning, 22(4), 443-460.