The a-ha Moment — Your Brain at Work Problem Solving

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This is an experience most of us are familiar with …. You focus on a problem or try to remember something. The wheels are turning but you can’t find the solution. You step away – think about something else, go to sleep, take a walk, make supper — and suddenly you have the answer! It’s the a-ha moment. If you’re like me, you love that moment. It makes you feel like there’s a part of your brain that functions behind the scenes (almost without any effort). How does this happen?

Susan Weinschenk, PhD, gives the physiological explanation in an article for Psychology Today. “The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is in the front of your head (think forehead). The role of the PFC (among many things) is to concentrate on the task at hand, as well as to go searching for existing information you have stored in memory, and combine it with other existing information you have stored. It is this searching and combining of the PFC that allows you to solve problems and come up with new and novel ideas. Here’s the rub—if you keep your PFC too focused on the “task at hand” then it can’t go searching for interesting combinations of information you have stored in memory. When you take a break (the walk, the dinner, the sleep) then your PFC is freed up to go searching and combining. So if you need to solve a problem or want a new idea, let your PFC know what you want to solve and then take a step away and take a break!”

Art Markman, PhD and psychology professor at the University of Texas, further explains the memory recall problem: “Your memory is competitive. When you start thinking about a problem, certain ideas jump to the forefront. They leap to mind both because they are related to the description of the problem, and because they successfully tamp down (or inhibit) competing memories. Once memory has been inhibited, it has a hard time reaching your awareness, even if the information from that memory might be crucial for solving a problem.

“When you walk away from a problem and think about something else, your memory resets. The ideas that dominated your thinking recede from your thoughts. The memories that were inhibited before gradually become more accessible. If your thoughts return to the problem after a pause, those other memories now have a chance to influence your thinking.”

The a-ha moment, also known by psychologists as the incubation period, is real. Allow for and make the most of this pause phenomena … by taking a break. There is value in that pause.


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