Eureka Effect


The Eureka effect, also known as the ‘aha! effect,’ refers to the common human experience of suddenly understanding a previously incomprehensible problem or concept. The Eureka effect is named after the myth that the Greek polymath Archimedes, having discovered how to measure the volume of an irregular object, leaped out of a public bath, and ran home naked shouting ‘eureka’ (‘I found it’). Archimedes was asked by the local king to detect whether a crown was pure gold, or if the goldsmith had added silver.

During his trip to the public bath, he noticed that water is displaced when his body sinks into the bath, and that the volume of water displaced equals the volume of the body immersed in the water. This means that he can measure the density of the crown, and compare it to a bar of pure gold. This story is thought to be a myth, because it was first mentioned by the Roman writer Vitruvius nearly 200 years later, and because the method described by Vitruvius would have been inaccurate.

Some research describes the Aha! effect (also known as insight or epiphany) as a ‘memory advantage,’ but conflicting results exist as to where exactly it occurs in the brain, and it is difficult to predict under what circumstances one can expect an Aha! moment. ‘Insight’ is a psychological term that attempts to describe the process in problem solving when a previously unsolvable puzzle becomes suddenly clear and obvious. Often this transition from not understanding to spontaneous comprehension is accompanied by an exclamation of joy or satisfaction, an Aha! moment. A person utilizing insight to solve a problem is able to give accurate, discrete, all-or-nothing type responses, whereas individuals not using the insight process are more likely to produce partial, incomplete responses.

A recent theoretical account of the Aha! moment started with four defining attributes of this experience. First, the Aha! moment appears suddenly; second, the solution to a problem can be processed smoothly, or fluently; third, the Aha! moment elicits positive affect; fourth, a person experiencing the Aha! moment is convinced that a solution is true. These four attributes are not separate but can be combined because the experience of processing fluency, especially when it occurs surprisingly (for example, because it is sudden), elicits both positive affect and judged truth.

Insight can be conceptualized as a two phase process. The first phase of an Aha! experience requires the problem solver to come upon an impasse, where they become stuck and even though they may seemingly have explored all the possibilities, are still unable to retrieve or generate a solution. The second phase occurs suddenly and unexpectedly. After a break in mental fixation or re-evaluating the problem, the answer is retrieved. Some research suggest that insight problems are difficult to solve because of our mental fixation on the inappropriate aspects of the problem content. In order to solve insight problems, one must ‘think outside the box.’ It is this elaborate rehearsal that may cause people to have better memory for Aha! moments. Insight is believed to occur with a break in mental fixation, allowing the solution to appear transparent and obvious.

The Eureka effect was first described by psychologists Pamela Auble, Jeffrey Franks and Salvatore Soraci in 1979. In their study, a subject would be presented with an initially confusing sentence such as ‘The haystack was important because the cloth ripped.’ After a certain period of time of non-comprehension by the reader, the cue word (parachute) would be presented, the reader could comprehend the sentence, and this resulted in better recall on memory tests. Subjects spent a considerable amount of time attempting to solve the problem, and initially it was hypothesized that elaboration towards comprehension may play a role in increased recall. However, it was found that both ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ sentences that resulted in an Aha! effect had significantly better recall rates than sentences which subjects were able to comprehend immediately. The transition from noncomprehension to comprehension is credited for improving recall.

Currently there are two theories for how people arrive at the solution for insight problems. The first is the ‘progress monitoring theory’: an individual will analyze the distance from their current state to the goal state; once they realize that they cannot solve the problem while on their current path, they will seek alternative solutions. The second way that people attempt to solve these puzzles is the ‘representational change theory’: an individual initially has a low probability for success because they use inappropriate knowledge in setting unnecessary constraints on the problem. If they relax their constraints, they can bring previously unavailable knowledge into working memory to solve the problem. The person also utilizes ‘chunk decomposition,’ where he or she will separate meaningful chunks into their component pieces. Both constraint relaxation and chunk decomposition allow for a change in representation, that is, a change in the distribution of activation across working memory, at which point they may exclaim ‘aha!’ Currently both theories have support, with the progress monitoring theory being more suited to multiple step problems, and the representational change theory more suited to single step problems.

It had been determined that recall is greater for items that were generated by the subject versus if the subject was presented with the stimuli. There seems to be a memory advantage for instances where people are able to produce an answer themselves. Other evidence was found indicating that effort in processing visual stimuli was recalled more frequently than the stimuli that were simply presented. This study was done using connect-the-dots or verbal instruction to produce either a nonsense or real image. It is believed that effort made to comprehend something when encoding induces activation of alternative cues that later participate in recall.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging and electroencephalogram studies have found that problem solving requiring insight involves increased activity in the right cerebral hemisphere as compared with problem solving not requiring insight. Broad generalizations are often made in popular psychology about certain functions (e.g. logic, creativity) being lateralized, that is, located in the right or left side of the brain. These claims are often inaccurate, as most brain functions are actually distributed across both hemispheres. Most scientific evidence for asymmetry relates to low-level perceptual functions rather than the higher-level functions. However, in these studies increased activity was found in the right hemisphere anterior superior temporal gyrus (the primary auditory cortex, which is responsible for processing sounds).

Some unconscious processing may take place while a person is asleep, and there are several cases of scientific discoveries coming to people in their dreams. Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz said that the ring structure of benzene came to him in a dream where a snake was eating its own tail. Studies have shown increased performance at insight problems if the subjects slept during a break between receiving the problem and solving it. Sleep may function to restructure problems, and allow new insights to be reached. Henri Poincaré stated that he valued sleep as a time for ‘unconscious thought’ that helped him break through problems.

Psychologist Stellan Ohlsson believes that at the beginning of the problem-solving process, some salient features of the problem are incorporated into a mental representation of the problem. In the first step of solving the problem, it is considered in light of previous experience. Eventually, an impasse is reached, where all approaches to the problem have failed, and the person becomes frustrated. Ohlsson believes that this impasse drives unconscious processes which change the mental representation of a problem, and cause novel solutions to occur.

The Nine Dot Problem is a classic spatial problem used by psychologists to study insight. The problem consists of 3 x 3 square created by 9 black dots. The task is to connect all 9 dots using exactly 4 straight lines, without retracing or removing one’s pen from the paper. Kershaw & Ohlsson report that in a laboratory setting with a time limit of 2 or 3 minutes, the expected solution rate is 0%. The difficulty with the Nine Dot Problem is that it requires respondents to look beyond the conventional figure-ground relationships that create subtle, illusory spatial constraints and (literally) ‘think outside of the box.’ Breaking the spatial constraints shows a shift in attention in working memory and utilizing new knowledge factors to solve the puzzle.

Matchstick arithmetic, which was developed and used by G. Knoblich, involves matchsticks that are arranged to show a simple but incorrect math equation in roman numerals. The task is to correct the equation by moving only one matchstick. In the Eight Coin Problem a set of 8 coins is arranged on a table in a certain configuration, and the subject is told to move two coins so that all coins touch exactly three others. The difficulty in this problem comes from thinking of the problem in a purely 2-dimensional way, when a 3-dimensional approach is the only way to solve the problem.

Verbal riddles are becoming popular problems in insight research. Example: ‘A man was washing windows on a high-rise building when he fell from the 40-foot ladder to the concrete path below. Amazingly, he was unhurt. Why? [Answer] He slipped from the bottom rung!’ Anagrams involve manipulating the order of a given set of letters in order to create one or many words. The original set of letters may be a word itself, or simply a jumble. Example: Santa can be transformed to spell Satan. Rebus puzzles, also called ‘wordies,’ involve verbal and visual cues that force the respondent to restructure and ‘read between the lines’ (almost literally) to solve the puzzle. Example: ‘you just me’ [answer: ‘just between you and me’].

The Remote Associates Test (known as the RAT) was developed by feminist social psychologist Martha Mednick in 1962 to test creativity. However, it has recently been utilized in insight research. The test consists of presenting participants with a set of words, such as ‘lick,’ ‘mine,’ and ‘shaker.’ The task is to identify the word that connects these three seemingly unrelated ones. In this example, the answer is ‘salt.’ The link between words is associative, and does not follow rules of logic, concept formation or problem solving, and thus requires the respondent to work outside of these common heuristical constraints. Performance on the RAT is known to correlate with performance on other standard insight problems.

There are issues related to the taxonomy (classification) of insight problems. Puzzles and problems that are utilized in experiments to elicit insight may be divided into two classes: ‘pure insight’ problems are those that necessitate the use of insight, whereas ‘hybrid insight’ problems are those that can be solved by other methods, such as the trial and error. The existence of hybrid problems in insight research poses a significant threat to any evidence gleaned from studies that employ them. While the phenomenological experience of insight can help to differentiate insight-solving from non-insight solving (by asking the respondent to describe how they solved the problem, for example), the risk that non-insight solving has been mistaken for insight solving still exists.

There are several examples of scientific discoveries being made due to a sudden flash of insight. One of the key insights in developing his special theory of relativity came to Albert Einstein while talking to his friend Michele Besso: ‘I started the conversation with him in the following way: ‘Recently I have been working on a difficult problem, today I come here to do battle against that problem with you.’ We discussed every aspect of this problem. Then suddenly I understood where the key to this problem lay. Next day I came back to him again and said to him without even saying hello, ‘thank you. I’ve completely solved the problem.” However, Einstein also noted that the whole idea of special relativity did not come to him as a sudden, single thought, like a eureka moment: ‘Actually, I was led to it by steps arising from the individual laws derived from experience.’ Similarly, German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss said after a eureka moment: ‘I have the result, only I do not yet know how to get to it.’

British geneticist Sir Alec Jeffreys had a eureka moment in his lab in Leicester after looking at the X-ray film image of a DNA experiment at 9:05 am on Monday 10 September 1984, which unexpectedly showed both similarities and differences between the DNA of different members of his technician’s family. Within about half an hour, he realized the possible scope of DNA fingerprinting, which uses variations in the genetic code to identify individuals. The method has become important in forensic science to assist police detective work, and it has also proved useful in resolving paternity and immigration disputes. The method can also be applied to non-human species, for example in wildlife population genetics studies. Before his methods were commercialized in 1987, his laboratory was the only center carrying out DNA fingerprinting in the world.

Popular culture has its own views of the Aha! effect. Although both are defined as that moment of insight that changes one’s state of mind, its applications greatly differ. Where scientists have focused on understanding the mechanisms of insights as well as how and where Aha! moments occur in the brain, Oprah Winfrey has taken this phenomenon and turned it into a popular and well-recognized state of mind. By focusing on the emotional and life changing occurrences an individual experiences, Oprah views the Aha! effect as a sudden moment of realization, where an individual recognizes that they need to make a change or move forward in life. Oprah includes ‘Aha! Moments’ in her monthly magazine, ‘O: The Oprah Magazine,’ and commonly makes reference to these moments of insight on her television show, Oprah. Oprah has integrated this insightful occurrence into popular culture, encouraging the mainstream population to recognize these ‘Opr-Aha!’ moments.

2 Responses to “Eureka Effect”

  1. Reblogged this on Observation Obligation and commented:
    In fact, the Eureka Effect is one of the most effective ways to remember concepts or problems because of the emotional binding which the Eureka effect creates. (That is, adrenaline, joy, happiness in the moment of understanding) From personal experience, this emotional binding keeps up interest to dig deeper, to perfect skills/abilities. Ultimately, this implies that the Eureka Effect is one of the most advanced ways of learning (whether this might be during childhood or adolescence but also at higher ages).


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