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Surprising Science

How “Eureka!” Affects the Brain

Where does insight come from and what does it do in our brains? According to new research from scientists at the University of British Columbia, “Eureka!” moments may in fact be a function of how our frontal cortex neurons switch from encoding a familiar idea to creating a brand new idea that could only be figured out through trial and error.

“Perhaps insight is the moment when prefrontal cortex networks combine a subgroup of previously arbitrary stimuli and actions into a new set immediately following feedback that this particular combination of stimuli and actions is the correct one,” said Dr. Jeremy Seamans, a researcher at UBC’s Brain Research Centre and Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute. Seamans and his team determined the neural nature of this kind of sudden insight using a statistical analysis of tests performed on rats. As rats figured out a new rule in a specially designed task, they found that the same populations of neurons formed corresponding new network states in the rats’ brains.

Insight-creating feedback can be from the environment, or from our own internalized hypothesis testing, says Seamans “At a cellular level this moment of recombination we call ‘insight’ is actually a change in the relative pattern of activity across large groups of prefrontal cortex neurons.” So, essentially, these types of adaptive and insightful moments can be boiled down to an adaptation in the way our brain codes new information.

Big Think’s featured interview today with game designer and Quest2Learn school founder Katie Salen marks the third installment of Big Think’s “Moments of Genius” series, which is sponsored by Intel and focuses on key discoveries and ideas by math and science leaders. A professor and designer, Salen conceptualized the idea of a school in New York whose curriculum would be based on principles learned from gaming and digital culture.

Salen says that students get deeper into learning when they design the games about something. And because games require a player, the designer is forced to think about things from their user’s point of view. “For kids, this is a profound moment where they suddenly begin to understand the notions of point of view, they really begin to understand ideas and empathy.” she says that game design helps students to understand perspectives other than their own and s a great way to engender collaboration.

Also featured in this eight-week series are Martin Cooper, inventor of the cell phone; David Ho, the AIDS researcher famous for pioneering combination therapy in treating HIV-infected patients; Arlie Petters, a mathematical physicist at Duke who’s out to prove that there’s a fifth dimension; and Nathan Wolfe, who led a team that discovered the origins of malaria.  Get exclusive insight into the fascinating minds of our greatest math and science thinkers at This series is sponsored by Intel.