Friday, January 16, 2009 by Dave Blum

One of the most interesting articles I’ve read in a while is “The Eureka Hunt”, by Jonah Lehrer; it was published in The New Yorker on July 28, 2008 and you can read the whole article in the magazine’s archive by clicking here.

The article begins with the story of a firefighter faced with an impossible situation.  A blazing forest fire is roaring up a valley towards him and his crew.  At the last second, the firefighter comes up with a desperate insight; he lights a match and ignites the ground in front of him.  He then steps into the shadow of his fire, so that he’s surrounded by a buffer of burned land.  Finally he lies down in the smoldering embers and the larger conflagration jumps right over his body, leaving him all but unharmed.

Such sudden insight (as the firefighter’s) is apparently fairly common but, as Lehrer’s article explores, the brain’s process for generating “aha moments” is quite complex.  As far as scientists can tell, the brain’s first action in solving a problem is to focus, suppressing all possible distractions (such as the sensory areas in the visual cortex).  The brain then begins a “search phase” in all the usual places, including the logic centers in the left hemisphere. If the problem is sufficiently difficult, however, the brain soon reaches an impasse.  In order to access the centers for “insight”, the brain must first *relax* in order to seek out more remote associations in the highly-creative right hemisphere.

The relaxation stage is crucial! This is why so many of our greatest insights come to us while we’re in the shower or bath, or in the early morning when our drowsy mind is first waking up.  And the converse is true;  insights can often be inhibited by the typical approach of bearing down, drinking caffeine, focusing on the problem, minimizing distractions, etc.   The biggest insights, in fact, seem to come to us when our mind is distracted and wandering.


Corporate Team building activities are sometimes denigrated for “taking people away from work”.  But if you consider the article above, offsites actually make a lot more sense.  By getting away from the pressures of the office, the “clenched mind” can relax a bit and start generating those out-of-the-box ideas so essential for business breakthroughs. Whether you’re solving a scavenger hunt list, pondering treasure hunt clues, or doing a puzzle-based bar crawl, your mind is relaxing from its usual work issues — rendering it open to a whole new world of insight!