from the article:
"Evidence mounts that brains decide before their owners know about it"

"EVERYONE has had the experience. You are confronted by a complex problem, with a not-so-obvious solution. You pore over it, engrossed, but still the answer will not come. Fearing you will be stuck for ever, you take a walk. Then suddenly, from nowhere, there it is. Eureka!

But did it really come from nowhere? A piece of research about to be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, by Joydeep Bhattacharya at Goldsmiths’ College in London and Bhavin Sheth at the University of Houston, in Texas, suggests that although people are not consciously aware of it, their brains have to be in a certain state for an insight to take place. Moreover, that state can be detected electrically several seconds in advance of the 'aha!' moment itself.

The question of where insights come from has become a hot topic in neuroscience..."

the conclusion of the article:
"Conscious thought, it seems, does not solve problems. Instead, unconscious processing happens in the background and only delivers the answer to consciousness once it has been arrived at. Food for further thought, indeed."

Tags: eureka, insight, neuroscience

Views: 3

Replies to This Discussion

This is very interesting, both due to the neuroscientific insights and because of the philosophical issues raised. We need, I think, to be very careful about moving from "we observe x in the brain before people report having an aha moment" to "the problem solving occurs in the brain before it is delivered to consciousness". It seems to me there is no way to empirically justify the second statement.
Hi Connie, this research reminds me of the nifty research that was widely reported a few years ago, where people were given a math problem to solve, and either allowed to sleep on it, or queried after several hours of waking - and it was the people who had slept on it that did better, suggesting that some kind of problem-solving could go on while sleeping.

That resonates very strongly with me: I sometimes have very clear thoughts on waking, and if I have something I really want to ponder, the best thing to do is to get straight out of bed, get into the shower, and think through a problem while in the shower. I've had amazingly good results from shower-thinking!

Also, just as a personal anecdote, I had a strange experience some years ago where I was almost in a traffic accident: the light had turned green and I was about to hear into an intersection when all of a sudden someone pulled out from the left-turn lane facing me and cut in front of me - I had to slam on the brakes and was thrown forward; luckily, there was no traffic behind me. Well, it was this big shock to my system and I'm sure every possible type of adrenaline was racing through my blood - well, at that moment I solved a technology problem (I won't go into the details) that had had me baffled for over a year. WEIRD, huh? But whatever had to happen for me to get that mental breakthrough happened at exactly that moment that I almost had the car accident.

Obviously, getting a good night's sleep and taking a shower is far preferable as a problem-solving strategy, ha ha.
Let's throw this article into the mix... have you read it? The Eureka Hunt by Jonah Lehrer. (Unfortunately, you have to be a member at the New Yorker site to get the full article.

Thanks, James, for the note. No, it doesn't seem possible to get a handle on this statement: "the problem solving occurs in the brain before it is delivered to consciousness"---but it's still puzzling and fascinating to think about.

I know I get my best insights when I'm not struggling to think them. They arrive, often during play. Sometimes in dreams. Sometimes in flashes, out of the blue, a problem solved suddenly and without explanation, often when I wasn't thinking of the problem at all.

Laura, thanks for the personal story. Very weird, surprising, and satisfying.
For whatever it is worth related to this post: It is very evident to me that my best 'thinking' is done while in the midst of physical activity. For me that means road cycling and running.

All the insights, blog post ideas, best lesson plans and synthesis happens then. While riding or running. The challenge is to capture and keep them after.
Me, too, Andrew. A lot of my best ideas come to me when I'm doing something physical. There's horse-riding, running, hiking, playing soccer, walking, gardening, something else I don't think I need to mention--all of those--maybe it's not thinking but it is a prelude to thinking, the opening to thought. Or sometimes it's the thought itself: the idea, the gem, the essay idea, the perfect next lesson, the answer to the problem that's been plaguing me.

One of my favorite things in life is to have two problems that intersect to solve each other. The solution to one is the solution to the other, and it seemed before that they were unrelated. I'm going to try to think of some recent examples. They'll probably all be farming examples since I've been immersed in rural ecological life for most of the summer. It's like the phrase "killing two birds with one stone," but I'm talking about when you don't even see the two problems as being in the same sphere. Then, bang, the solution gloriously presents itself.

Anyhow, I agree that physical activity leads to some of the best thought. Maybe the best of the best.

We're going to have to duck when James comes back to tell us we're nuts. ;-) (But James, isn't it so? What do we know about exercise and brain function?)
I actually want to make my point a little stronger, after some of the replies here. The evidence presented in the article in no way justifies the claim that "Conscious thought, it seems, does not solve problems." This is endemic of the sloppy reporting that frequently accompanies new neuroscientific research.
A very good point, James. I can confirm this anecdotally. In many of my classrooms, I see and have seen students not engaged in on-topic conscious thought - yet it is plain to all that no problems are being solved. (Yes, I know it's a whimsical anti-scientific conclusion.)

It really is important to find the real reports of breakthroughs. And, as well as problems with print reporting, television science can be quite misleading - particularly when there are on-air 'experiments' which back up various assertions which are flawed in their presentation, description and conclusions. And the claim is usually followed up by a statement like "and this is supported by extended research" (which research is usually unreferenced)

This is why I was excited to find a UK site which reports on the science behind much modern health reporting - it analyses the type of research done, who funded it, what the conclusions really were, what its current applicability is, and where the links to the science are. I mentioned it in another place, but since there is no problem with virtuous repetition, here it is again.

A current article covers claims that diet 'causes bowel disease'. Worth a look, both for the content itself and the NHS Choices: Behind the Headlines process.
Hi James,

I think people are talking about when there's a block, and the mind can't move forward. It takes a rest or a diversion to switch into a different form of processing.

There's something about "letting things rest."

There's something about moving away from the problem.

Somehow, then, the answer often appears.

Did you read The Eureka Hunt? If not, please consider--I know that either Howard Gardner or David Perkins mentioned it as an important article. I listed it as one of my top 3 favorite articles of last year. What do you think about what what Lehrer has to say?

I agree with what I think you're saying, James, that the brain doesn't have to be in a certain state to solve problems. Conscious, disciplined, directed thought can lead to problem-solution. I don't agree with the author of the article who suggests that Bhattacharya is saying the brain has to be in a certain state to arrive at the solution for a complex problem. I wonder if that is what Bhattacharya is saying.

Just being playful for a moment, don't you like the idea that there is a sort of brewing-vat in the brain, a wild mix of flavors and chemistry, and inside the thought gets cooked.. It's not until at the last moment that it comes out and the mind becomes aware of itself?

I bet you're screaming now.

Sorry, can't help myself. Just such fun to think about. You're the one who studies it in a disciplined way, I'm just playing around; please forgive me!

Really, the whole neuroscience thing is ultimately perplexing. So we see that the flow of blood in the brain changes, or the electrical activity is doing something, or the anatomy of the brain changes in particular directions--and all these are comparatively different for people in different conditions (different compared to one's self, different when compared to others)... What the heck does it all mean? What sorts of patterns can we see? How do we make sense of the huge input of data, new data, never before obtainable? What do we do with it?

You are so lucky. How cool to be in a whole new field of research: Mind, Brain, and Education.

That is the place to be.
I'm in support of Connie here. I think what she is suggesting is actually a Universal (Human) Truth:

There's something about "letting things rest."
There's something about moving away from the problem.

Sorry, can't debate the "facts" with some of you but I know this has been verified for myself on numerous occasions. The work gets done by walking away.

Of course conscious thought can solve problems. But so can 'unconscious' thought. There is a biological reason why we sleep. It's nature's way of turning off the conscious.

BTW, one of the reasons I stay away from Fireside for long stretches: I see lots of folks just trying to debate points from their particular points of view and training--using "conscious" thought. At some point it becomes about the argument rather than validating someone else's experience.

And there's a big difference.
I just want to clear something up - I am not responding to other people's responses to the article posted, but to the article itself and its relation to the original research. The phenomenon described, of "leaving things rest", is a fascinating and well-studied one. But the neurological evidence presented in the original research doesn't have anything to do with that phenomenon (you can find the original article by searching for: Sheth BR, Sandkühler S, Bhattacharya J (2009) Posterior beta and anterior gamma predict cognitive insight. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 21: 1269-1279).

So the Economist article rather misses the point - that's what I was trying to draw to people's attention. The broader problem is that when this sort of thing happens, ten educational interventions can appear (like Brain Gym, for example) which have little evidence to support their efficacy except anecdote and misunderstood neuroscience.


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