• West Cork Literary Festival 2021

‘The Eureka Factor’ by John Kounios and Mark Beeman

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | Non Fiction

By John Bradford

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Wouldn’t we all like to have more ‘Aha!’ moments, those times when a sudden insight occurs to us? Maybe a fresh angle on a long-studied problem, or a spontaneous idea that shows us a totally new way to move our thinking forward. Many books on creative thinking focus on what to do after that moment of inspiration has happened – how to develop the idea, how to present it, how to market it, and so on. ‘The Eureka Factor’, on the other hand, targets the much-needed topic of how to have original ideas in the first place.

John Kounios and Mark Beeman, professors at Drexel and North-Western Universities, are experienced researchers into brain sciences and creative cognition. As they say: “Nearly everyone has had sudden aha moments of clarity. They can and do change our lives.” In this landmark publication, their pioneering investigations using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) into creative insight have led them to clarify how it is that our brain comes up with these sudden, often surprising, insights. They have also established how we can develop our creative thinking skills so that most of us can generate significantly more ‘Eureka!’ moments and “use them as stepping stones for [our] personal development”.

(‘Eureka!’ – I have found it! – is what the ancient Greek scientist and inventor Archimedes exclaimed when he reportedly leapt out of his bath and ran naked down the road after his sudden realization that a solid which is denser than water will be lighter when immersed in fluid, by the weight of the water the solid displaced. Archimedes used his method to test whether King Hieron’s crown was made of solid gold or not.)

Leonardo da Vinci had a moment of intuition like this when he first conceived of the idea that human beings might be able to fly in a helicopter-like structure. Similarly, Tim Berners Lee experienced a flash of inspiration when he first realized that people anywhere on the planet could be connected by the world wide web.

Kounios and Beeman pinpoint how we can train our minds to capture fresh ideas from ‘outside the box’. Creative thinking in all fields of life is not just a skill that a lucky few artists and musicians have inherited through their genes. It is a skill that almost all of us can acquire so that flashes of insight and novel ways of looking at things become common features of our lives. With the accelerating needs of the fast-moving world around us, and when, according to research by Professor Kyung-Hee Kim in Virginia, human creativity in the States is dropping, this is a skill that we all need.

The authors’ research using neuroimaging has shown that when we seek a totally fresh idea we face barriers to our thinking. We become stuck. But, as we learn to take a break and relax for a while – have a coffee, play a game of tennis or simply look away – the unconscious part of our brain continues to work away at the problem in the background. This is when a ‘Eureka!’ moment can occur, seemingly out of the blue: we wake up in bed with that brilliant solution to the problem that would never normally have occurred to us. As we learn to allow ourselves regular periods when the conscious part of our brain, especially our visual circuits, can switch off after focusing on a problem, ideas can incubate in our neurological circuits, ranging through connections we had never consciously considered. We create the ideal context in which fresh insights can arise.

Although the prospect of financial gains is compelling, it has been found not necessarily to lead to breakthrough ideas. Motivation as ‘a general drive for self-enhancement’, on the other hand, is shown to influence creative insights, especially feeling safe – like a wary squirrel who at last trusts you enough to take a peanut from your outstretched hand. This confidence allows us a sense of adventure and makes us feel free to explore untested possibilities, leading us to make creative leaps.

Further evidence quoted – by Adam Galinsky – indicates that multicultural experience enhances creativity. The amount of time living (not travelling) abroad appeared to raise the creativity levels of Galinsky’s subjects. For those who had lived abroad, even recalling memories of having adapted to a foreign culture provided an additional creativity boost. This may be why so many immigrants are such a rich source of creative talent (e.g. Madeleine Albright, Albert Einstein, Martina Navratilova, Audrey Hepburn, Vladimir Nabokov, Marie Curie, Sigmund Freud)

These, and other, helpful approaches to boosting our creative thinking skills are described in detail by Kounios and Beeman with a multitude of examples. In the context of the challenges and opportunities humanity faces today this compelling and (mostly) readable book is highly recommended for everyone seeking to stimulate some fresh thinking from our neurological circuits. More techniques for creative thinking can be found at: creativethinkingtime.blogspot.com

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