While Oprah didn’t invent the “aha moment,” Google the words and you’ll find no shortage of gifs showing her exaggerated expressions. The aha moment, according to John Kounios, a professor of psychology, is that moment of sudden realization. It’s a phenomenon that’s fascinated psychologists for over a century.
One of the most famous aha moments is taught in grade school. Remember Archimedes and “Eureka!”? Have a look at this fun TED-Ed animation for a reminder.
Kounios, who wrote the book The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain, says in an interview that gaining insight in this way is the opposite of analytical thinking—such as following a recipe or roadmap. But it’s no less important.
Why We Need Aha Moments
An aha moment might suddenly provide an unexpected solution to an ongoing problem, or it might offer a new perspective on something. It could even lead to an invention, as was the case with the Slinky.
With aha moments seemingly fundamental to anthropology and human evolution, it seems that we should have more of them. Except we can’t just will them to happen. And we can’t always look to others for the answer. Organized religion, advertising and influencers—we’re looking in your direction…
In our quest for enlightenment, however, there are certain things we can do to create the fertile conditions for great ideas to prosper.
3 Ways to Encourage Aha Moments
1. Improve your mood
For Kounios, this might be the most important factor. Despite the tortured artist persona, you’re more likely to have an aha moment if you’re feeling good. The evolutionary explanation for this is that when you’re in a positive mood, you don’t feel a sense of threat, which means you’re more willing to take chances. This gives you permission to try things that you may normally label “wrong” or risky. On the other hand, negative moods can get in the way of life, never mind creative thinking.
2. Get enough sleep
This goes hand-in-hand with the above. Of course, good sleep leads to good mood but it gets its own mention because of the “memory consolidation” that takes place while you’re doing it. Kounios explains it’s the process that brings out details which are not obvious in your waking moments. It’s a particularly good idea to “sleep on it” when you’re stuck on an idea. Sleeping allows you to partially forget the problem, opening your brain to other, perhaps more helpful, thoughts.
“There’s this really wrong idea that people who sleep more are in a sense weak or lazy… Sleep is not just rest. I believe it’s mental work.”
– John Kounios, Professor of Psychology
3. Widen your perspective
This includes things like reading more and engaging in discussions, especially on topics
you don’t know much about. Anything that spreads your attention or broadens your knowledge gives your brain new ideas for developing thoughts. Talking to a counsellor may allow you to see things in a new light or consider things you’ve never thought about before.
Realize your potential
One of the best bits of feedback we get is that we help guys to understand thoughts, feelings and situations with more clarity, and that in turn enables them to move past what’s troubling them. We help guys untangle complexity and see the object of their frustration more clearly. Often, we help guys re-frame what’s happening so they can tackle it themselves. In most cases, the simple act of kicking the issue around helps conquer it.