Most of us can recall a time when we can identify with Archimedes’ exclamation of “Eureka,” which he uttered upon realizing that the volume of bathwater his body displaced is equal to the volume of the parts of his body submerged in the bath. What had seemed just moments before to be splintered, disconnected ideas suddenly merge into a new, simple, clear understanding, much like the shifting kaleidescope colors that suddenly coelesce into a beautiful image. Most recently, I experienced an “aha moment” while struggling with the nuances of high performance electrical neuroimaging (HPEN), a methodology favored by my co-author John Cacioppo and his brilliant wife, Steph. After studying volumes of material, I was frustrated by the feeling that I just wasn’t getting it. Putting my reading aside, I took my Australian shepherd out for a walk, determined to soak in the beautiful autumn sunshine and forget about neuroscience for a while. Much to my surprise, my thoughts drifted to stable microstates and their transitions, and it all seemed so easy!

Most of what we do in education involves analytical thought, where we plod step by logical step through a problem. How does the insight of an aha moment compare? Insight, which has been studied extensively by cognitive neuroscientists, has been defined as “any sudden comprehension, realization, or problem solution that involves a reorganization of the elements of a person’s mental representation of a stimulus, situation, or event to yield a nonobvious or nondominant interpretation” (Kounios & Beeman, 2014, p. 74). Insights often follow a blockage or impasse, such as my failure to comprehend HPEN, and are usually accompanied by surprise and positive emotion.

What makes insight experiences so memorable? We know that emotional memories can be especially memorable, so the ability of insight to trigger positive mood and surprise might “stamp” the new ideas into memory. We also know that information framed in your own words and associated with your own experience is more easily retrieved (the self-referent effect or SRE in memory). Solving problems, whether by insight or analytical thought, is rewarding, leading to positive associations between the material and the experience of retrieving it.

At the same time, positive mood not only results from an insight, but also promotes the likelihood of insight. Anxiety results in reduced focus. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense to focus narrowly on a source of threat, whether that is a snake in the road ahead or the fear of failure. In contrast, a relaxed positive mood opens people’s perspectives and stimulates exploration. This broader focus is more conducive to thinking “outside the box” in creative and less restricted ways.

What are the implications of our understanding of insight for educators? First, there is a time and a place for insight. Insight cannot occur in the absence of understanding the problem (Wallas, 1926, as cited in Kounios & Beeman, 2014). Students need to know the nuts and bolts of a problem before they are expected to interact with it creatively. Second, educators wishing to stimulate insight should strive to maintain a positive environment where it’s okay to fail as long as you learn something from your failure. An environment characterized by anxiety is counterproductive to the experience of insight.

We cannot guarantee that our students will experience insight in our classes, but seeing a light bulb go on in a student’s head is quite possibly one of the most rewarding experiences we have as educators.


Kounios, J., & Beeman, M. (2014). The cognitive neuroscience of insight. Annual Review

            of Psychology, 65, 71—93. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115154


egonz124 · November 25, 2017 at 7:23 pm

What stood out most to me about this entry was how anxiety ties in to retention. Unfortunately, many students these days probably encounter anxiety when studying for tests which will more than likely affect their ability to control their focus and actually understand the material, instead they are overwhelmed and do not retain, nor reach an “aha moment” (perhaps this is where abuse of Adderall comes into play on college campuses).

Laura Freberg · November 26, 2017 at 10:12 am

I think the use of Adderall would only acerbate the focus issue. Adderall (amphetamine salts) promotes focus, just like anxiety would. So you are less, not more likely to have aha moments. But this is an empirical question, if you’re looking for a senior project topic!

emilyknighton · November 27, 2017 at 3:18 pm

This concept gets me thinking a lot about exercise. I know that for myself, I can recognize when interrupting my studies to go and get some exercise will actually help my learning more than if I tried to force my mind to continue to focus. Sometimes it feels very counterintuitive, but once I get started I always feel like I made the right choice. It’s especially helpful if I’m getting anxious about an upcoming test, or maybe anxious about something completely irrelevant to my studying. One thing my mom always talks about is how creative she feels while she goes for a jog. I think part of it is the endorphins released while being physical, but there has got to be something key about the meditative state while exercising that helps to bring on those “aha moments” you’re talking about.

ddenisov · January 9, 2018 at 9:41 pm

“Insight cannot occur in the absence of understanding the problem” stands out to me. It seems like when introduced to a new class, students struggle because they divert all their attention on the new and fail to relate it to what they have learned in previous courses.

monjazeb · February 5, 2018 at 11:54 am

I think it is interesting that you mentioned within your post “ insight cannot occur in the absence of understanding the problem” because I can personally relate to this statement. In my own experiences, especially with studying new material, I think the best way to understand a concept is to have a solid base knowledge of that concept and then once I have that solid base, I can expand my knowledge on that concept. After retaining a general understanding I can generate insight, which I consider to be a deeper, more complex understanding. Insight comes with trial and error, and the most effective way to learn something is to fail at first, and then work on and correct that failure in order to succeed.

madisonklein118 · February 7, 2018 at 9:18 am

As I read this, the environment of the classroom and how it could impact our learning came to mind. The idea that anxiety can reduce focus and not be conducive to retaining material is interesting to me because sometimes professors will create stressful situations in the classroom such as calling on people at random. For an introvert like me, this kind of situation gives me extreme anxiety and inhibits learning. Reflecting on the classes Ive done best in, most of them seem to be classes where the professor made jokes and promoted open discussion rather than emphasized correct answers. This also made me realize the importance of getting a break during a 2 hour class in order to relax and process incoming information. Thanks for sharing!

Kendallhawkes · February 7, 2018 at 10:51 pm

This article makes me think that our education system is flawed. Students constantly feel anxiety when studying because the levels of understanding are each assigned a grade. According to the research, it seems like with this anxiety-inducing system, we are hindering the insight of our students. Perhaps students would learn faster and easier if each study session felt like a time to be open-minded and thoughtful rather than focused on memorization and achieving a letter-grade.

NicolleCooper · February 28, 2018 at 12:17 am

The part about how memories can be more memorable when we frame information in our own words or associate it with our own experiences really relates to me. When studying for my classes if I have a hard time memorizing a concept or definition I usually stop and try to think of some silly way to recall the information. Some methods include me comparing an experience I had because something from it reminds me or sounds similar to the concept I am struggling to memorize. Other times I create acronyms of random words that help me paint a picture so I can visualize it later during tests. I am surprised to hear about how reducing stress makes it easier for us to reach to an understanding of insight about information. I have never considered how having a positive mood helps affect my ability to reach an understanding or enhance my creative thinking. But thinking about it, reducing anxiety would make it easier to focus more on what I am trying to figure out rather than the thing I am stressed out about.

TakaShimokobe · March 11, 2018 at 1:41 pm

The part where positive mood promotes the likelihood of insight makes so much sense to me. In school, when preparing for a particularly difficult midterm or final, I normally stress out and stay up too late to study. In return, I am cranky/end up not doing as well as I thought I would on the final/midterm.

I also work as a Web Designer, and agree with the part that says insight cannot occur in the absence of understanding the problem. Before even starting to the create the HTML/CSS of a site, one must create various diagrams (site maps, user flows, wireframes, etc) to make sure that the developer understand what they want and how it should look like before even creating it.

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