in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #530: How to Get More “Aha” Insights

You’ve probably experienced a few aha moments in your life. Moments where an idea for a new business or piece of art, or a solution to a sticky technical, relational, or philosophical problem, suddenly popped into your mind.

What causes these proverbial light bulbs to go off over our heads? What’s going on in your brain when you experience an insight? And can you do anything to encourage more “aha” moments?

My guest has spent his career researching the answers to these questions. His name is John Kounios, and he’s a professor of psychology and the author of the book The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain. We begin our conversation discussing how researchers define what an insight is, and examples of how scientists and musicians have experienced them. John then walks us through the stages that lead up to getting an insight and explains what is going on in our brains right before and at the moment we experience one. We end our conversation discussing ways you can increase your chances of receiving insights, including the kind of environment and even color that encourages them most.

Show Highlights

  • What really is an insight or “aha” moment?
  • Why you can’t “will” yourself to an insightful moment
  • The stages that lead to insight 
  • Why showers lead to so many great ideas 
  • How the slinky can teach us about insights 
  • What’s going on in the brain when people have an “aha” experience?
  • Where do insights come from? Were they always there? 
  • How to nudge yourself towards more insights
  • Why your mood matters 
  • Is there a time of day most conducive to creative ideas?
  • Can alcohol help you have insights?
  • Which color can you surround yourself with to encourage “aha” moments?
  • Why does sleep lead to such great insights?

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

The Eureka Factor by John Kounion and Mark Beeman book cover.

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John on Twitter

John’s website

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. You’ve probably experienced a few aha moments in your life. Moments for an idea for a new business, for a piece of art or solutions to a sticky, technical, relational or philosophical problems suddenly pops into your head. What causes these proverbial light bulbs that go off in your head? What’s going on in our brain when we experience this? And can we do anything to encourage more aha moments. His career research to answer to these questions. His name is John Kounios, he’s professor of psychology and the author of the book The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain. We begin our conversation discussing how research has defined what an insight is and examples of how scientists and physicians have experienced them. John then walks through the stages that lead up to aha moments and explains what is going on in our brains right before at the moment we experience them. And we end our conversation discussing the way to increase your chances of receiving insights, kind of environment. John joins me now via Skype.

John Kounios, welcome to the show.

John Kounios: Thanks for having me.

Brett McKay: So you are a psychologist and the coauthor of the book, The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain. Now I know everyone listening has probably had one of those aha moments in their life and insight. But as a scientist, how do you define an insight?

John Kounios: Okay, well the term insight, which in the popular mind is the same thing as the term aha moment, has various definitions. And I think person on the street may just identify insight or aha moment with any deep understanding of something. A new idea, deep understanding. Psychological scientists who’ve been studying insight now for about a century have a much more specific definition of what an insight is or an aha moment. And it revolves around the idea that these realizations are sudden and often unexpected. So an insight would be any kind of sudden unexpected solution to a problem. Realization about something, a new perspective. A new perception of something. It has to impinge on the mind suddenly, almost in a jarring fashion because it’s very different from the way you had been thinking about it.

And these insights, these aha moments can convey a solution to a problem. It could convey an idea for an invention. It could convey a piece of music, it could be anything or just a new way of thinking about social relationships or anything. Whereas we can trust that with analytical thinking, and experimental psychologists define analytical thinking as being a slower, very deliberate, very conscious. It’s the kind of thing you do when somebody gives you a column of numbers to add up and you get your pencil out, and you use the method that you used in elementary school to you line up the columns of numbers and you go through them and you carry the remainders over, etc. Use Analytical thinking when you already have a strategy, you know how to do it either specifically or generally. So when you follow a recipe to cook something, you have it all laid out as a roadmap. You know exactly what to do.

In other situations, you may not know precisely what you need to do, but you have a pretty good general idea of how to get from point A to point B and you followed through those steps in a deliberate way. And you have conscious access to what you’re doing. You have some control over it. Whereas insights, they’re like cats. They don’t take orders, they don’t come when they’re called. There are things you can do to coax them, but you don’t have direct voluntary control over having an aha moment. You can’t will yourself to have an aha moment.

Brett McKay: Well yeah, that idea that you can’t will yourself. Anciently, they would’ve called an aha moment, the muses. The muses or the gods, or a genius was responsible for putting that idea into you.

John Kounios: Yes. And in fact, a lot of people still think about these aha moments as being religious experience. Even if the content isn’t religious. I was speaking a couple of months ago with a noted chemist who had this amazing idea in the middle of the night. And he ran down to his office and he wrote out a new chemical process, all the steps involved. And he said, “God put that idea into my head.” Maybe God did or maybe maybe God didn’t. But that expression, it shows this feeling that it’s out of one’s control. That it’s something that’s conveyed to you, to your consciousness from some other realm, whether it’s your own unconscious mind or from God, or something.

Brett McKay: And as you highlight in the book, a lot of the big breakthroughs that have been made in science. Art, music, they didn’t come about through this very deliberate analytical thinking. It was these insight moments where someone just, like the chemist here had an idea and the solution just popped into his brain.

John Kounios: Absolutely. And now sometimes, the various scientists or artists or whoever, they don’t always later on remember or recognize their own insights. I remember a few years ago reading an article that they interviewed a scientist, I think it was the University of Michigan. And they asked him, “Did you have any particular aha moment that led to your breakthrough?” And he said, “No, there was no aha moment. There was no insight. It was just years and years of gradual incremental work led me to this idea.” And says, “I don’t believe in aha moments.” And then later on in the interview, he was describing situation where he was stuck on a problem and then he was taking a shower, and an idea popped into his head. And that was the solution to the whole thing. That is an insight, he said he didn’t believe it. So he didn’t even recognize his own insights as being what they were.

And sometimes if you look back, if you talk to scientists who have had long careers, sometimes what stands out in their minds is the years of grueling, back-breaking, incremental work, rather than the breakthrough moments. And sometimes you have to dig a little to get them to recognize those. Whereas other times as in the case of this chemist, that was really right at the top of his mind because it was a very intense experience for him and very unusual.

Brett McKay: Yeah. I think Einstein said he had aha moments. He played the violin. I guess it’s when he had his aha moments. Paul McCartney like the song Yesterday just popped into his head and he played it and that was it.

John Kounios: That’s right. It came to him in his sleep or as he was waking up from sleep. Paul McCartney heard this melody, and he thought it was cool and he got up and he played it at the piano. And he thought, “Well this is a great tune. I wonder who wrote it.” He thought someone else had written it and that he had heard it somewhere and it just came to his mind. So he went to John Lennon, he played it for John Lennon and said, John Lennon said, “It’s great, but I’ve never heard this before. I don’t think anyone else wrote it.” And McCartney went to their producer, the Beatles’ producer, producer never heard it before. And it was only then that McCartney realized that he had come up with this melody. It didn’t feel like he created it. It just came to him. So he assumed that it was just something he had heard before and was recalling from memory in some way.

Now the melody came to him, but not the words. The words he came up with some time later to fit the melody. But again, that’s an example where it’s a great example of a situation where an insight occurs and someone feels like it’s given to them because they don’t feel like it was the product of their own efforts or thought.

Brett McKay: So while a insight feels effortless, feels like you didn’t do anything. Scientists, psychologists have found that there are stages that people go through that lead to an insight. Can you walk us through those stages?

John Kounios: Sure. Now the set of stages, it’s not the same for situations. It’s not the same for everyone. But this is the classic series or sequence of stages. So first you have a problem, you recognize it as a problem. So you need to solve this problem. So you immerse yourself in the problem. You study it from every angle, you gather background information that might be helpful. You make some efforts towards solving the problem. And then the classical situation is that you’re stuck. You’re not making progress. You’ve reached what’s called an impasse, and you don’t know what to do. So after awhile, you give up on it or just put it aside for awhile, and we might call that diversion. You go off and do something else. You might take a nap, you might go play tennis, or watch TV, or anything like that.

And then at some point, you’ll have an aha moment, a sudden insight that confers the solution to you. And this can happen when you least expect it. Often people have these insights while taking a shower. That’s actually very common. There are many stories of that and people always tell me they get their best ideas in the shower. And in fact, the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has said in interviews that sometimes he takes six or seven showers a day just to get ideas for his writing. So some people actually make use of that.

So that’s the standard sequence. You immerse yourself, you … and then finally I should mention. After people have the insight, often there’s an extra stage where they verify the correctness of the solution. They check it to make sure it’s correct.

So not all of these stages are necessary. So sometimes people are not immersing themselves in a problem. They just have an idea. They may not even recognize they have a problem. Sometimes aha moments can confer the solution to a problem you didn’t even know you had.

So for example. In 1943, Richard James was an engineer aboard a US navy ship, and he was installing springs on instruments to cushion them from the buffeting of the seed during choppy weather. And one of these springs got loose and started bouncing around. And in that instance he had this aha moment that wow, this would make a great toy. And he had to tinker with it for a couple of years to perfect it. But that became the slinky.

Now, I highly doubt that while he was installing springs on these instruments to cushion them, the shock absorbers, that he was thinking about toys. In fact, there’s no evidence he’d been thinking about toys prior to that at all. But what he saw the springs bouncing around like that, it suddenly occurred to him that this could be a great toy or at least be fashioned into one.

So that’s an of a situation where there was no immersion in a problem beforehand. There was no recognition of a problem. It’s just an idea. There was no impasse either. He wasn’t stuck because he hadn’t been working on anything. He just had this great insight and then later on verified it, and refined it, and thought about it to make it work. So that that’s an example right there of a different sequence of steps. Sometimes people don’t need the diversion. They could be working on a problem and have a sudden insight while they’re working on the problem. And that insight may be very different from the strategy they were taking when they were working on a problem. So you might be trying to solve some problem about the work or personal relationships and you think, well maybe this strategy would work. And you’re thinking about that. And then some other thought pops into your head as an insight that’s the solution. That would be an example of having an aha moment without that diversion from the problem right there.

So yeah, the classical sequence of immersion, impasse, diversion, insight, and then verification. Those are all the steps, but you don’t need all of those steps to have an insight.

Brett McKay: Interesting. Well, what this book does I’ve found helpful, and useful, and enlightening was what goes on in our brain when we experienced insight. Because and other scientists, thanks to new technology, have been able to look at the brain when people experience insights. So let’s talk about that moment when someone has that aha experience. What is going on in the brain? What parts of our brain are firing?

John Kounios: Yeah. Well, let me go back about a little bit more than 50 years and give a shout out to my main research collaborator, Mark Beeman at Northwestern University. We did together the the first neuroimaging study of insight. So as I mentioned earlier, psychological scientists have been studying insight for almost a century. Going back to around the time of World War I. But only starting about 15 years ago did anyone, in this case it was us. And shortly thereafter, other people. Decide, well let’s look inside the black box. Let’s use brain imaging to see what’s going on in the brain when a person has insight.

It took all that time because earlier than that, say in the 1980s or ’90s, we didn’t have the technology to do this. We didn’t have not just the hardware, but also the analytic methods, the mathematics, things like that to figure out how to do this kind of brain imaging experiments.

So you can’t just follow someone around, wait for them to have an insight or anticipate that they’re going to have one, and then stuff them in a brain scanner and hope it happens. And there’s several reasons why you can’t do that. One is that to do brain imaging, you need lots and lots of insights or lots of repetitions of something. You can’t just do a brain imaging of a single instance of something. There’s just too much noise. You need repetitions of it to get a refined end product.

And you can’t really anticipate when someone’s going to have an insight. The German gestalt psychologists of 100 years ago, they gave people these complicated brain teaser problems. And we couldn’t use those because most of the time people can’t solve them. They’re just too difficult. When they do solve them, it’s usually with an aha moment. But it’s just too hard.

So what we did was we decided to use little verbal puzzles and give people dozens and dozens of these. So for example, one kind of puzzle might be an anagram where you have to given a series of letters and you have to rearrange them to find the word. We have hundreds of these. There are other kinds of puzzles as well. So we can give people lots of puzzles and while they’re in a brain scanner and they can solve a lot of them, sometimes most of them. And after each solution we ask them, “Well, how did you solve that one? Did you work it out in a deliberate, methodical fashion? Or did the solution just pop into your awareness?”

So we sort the solutions into these are the insight solutions, those are the analytic solutions. And we compare the brain activity. In our first neuroimaging study, which was published in 2004 in the journal PLOS Biology, we found that at the moment of insight, there was a burst of activity in the right hemisphere of the brain in a part of the right temporal lobe. So that was the brain activity corresponding to the insight. We think it’s the brain activity corresponding to the solution actually popping into awareness.

But the thing that surprised us, and perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised us, was that there are other brain processes that are unconscious that led up to this. So when you have an aha moment, it feels like it’s coming to existence from nothing. But actually that’s not true. Your brain is doing various things unconsciously that lead up to that aha moment. So sometimes, there are examples where a person has already solved the problem, and that solution is unconscious. And it’s just waiting for the right moment to pop into awareness.

So you may have the solution and not know it, because it’s unconscious. But brain imaging can show activity in the brain corresponding to the existence of that solution prior to becoming conscious.

So we found a series of steps leading up to insight, and we decided in a series of studies trace the aha moment backwards in time to look at what all its precursors were in the brain.

Brett McKay: And what are those precursors? Do they follow those stages a bit that we talked about just now?

John Kounios: Loosely speaking, but not exactly. So the first precursor that we identified, which is only about a second before you have an aha moment, is what we call a brain blank. So we found the aha moment is this burst of activity in the right hemisphere of the brain. But we found a sudden decrease in activity in the visual cortex of the brain, which is in the back of the head. The area that processes visual information from the eyes.

I guess a good way to think about this is if you look someone right in the face and you ask them a difficult question, often what they’ll do is they’ll look away, they might look down at their shoes or they might look up at the blank ceiling or a blink wall. They might even close their eyes to think to avoid the distractions around them so that they can focus their attention inwardly. And in our experiments, people weren’t allowed to do that. They couldn’t move their heads, they couldn’t close their eyes at specific times or even move their eyes. But their brains did it for them. So what seems to happen is that the brain can detect that there is this unconscious solution or idea, and it shuts down briefly some of the visual inputs. It’s like closing your eyes, but it’s really your brain cutting off visual inputs to cut off some of that distraction, that noise so that this unconscious idea can bubble up.

So we called it a brain blink. And people don’t realize that often when they have an aha moment for just a brief instant before that moment, they may have reduced awareness of their environment because their attention is being focused inwardly.

So that was the first surprise. We didn’t expect that finding at all. And then if you go further back in time, we found that in the two seconds before each puzzle is presented, the brain activity in that two seconds before the puzzle predicts whether you will solve that upcoming puzzle with a flash of insight or solve it analytically. And that’s bizarre. And what it means is that how you go about solving a puzzle, it depends on the state of your brain or the state of your mind, your mindset when you get the puzzle.

And specifically, what we found is that when you’re going to solve an upcoming puzzle analytically by working it out in a deliberate fashion, your attention is focused outwardly. In this case, on the screen on which we flashed the puzzle, there’s more activity in the visual areas of the brain. You’re focusing on it. When you’re going to solve an upcoming problem with an insight, there’s reduced visual activity, you’re focusing your attention inwardly. And in other areas of the brain that are involved in processing ideas, those become more active. And there’s a really interesting area of the brain that becomes more active. It’s called the interior cingulate. And it’s in the front of the brain right in the middle. The interior cingulate, it’s been a very hot topic in cognitive neuroscience for 20, 25 years. It does a variety of things, but what it seems to be doing in this case is that it monitors the rest of the brain for activity.

So for example, in certain situations you have mental blinders on you. You know exactly what to do. You have a problem, you take it at face value, you don’t consider other options. That’s what happens when the interior cingulate is not very active. It’s not expanding the scope of your thought. It’s narrowing the scope of your thought. But when the interior cingulate fires up, it detects all of this activity in other parts of the brain. Sometimes these are weakly held ideas, unconscious ideas. It expands the scope of your thought and allows you to switch your attention to some crazy, long shot hypothesis about what’s going on. It takes the blinders off.

So if you’re interior cingulate, that area in the between the two hemispheres of your brain right in the middle. If that’s all fired up, you will be open to all kinds of crazy long shot ideas which are particularly creative, which may be correct. And those pop into awareness all of a sudden as aha moments. So that was a precursor we looked for, we didn’t know what we would find, but we found that. That’s another step leading towards insight.

And then going even further back in time, we found something that we found mind boggling. And that is in one experiment, we recorded people’s EEG’s while they just sat and did nothing. They were just relaxing. They weren’t given any kind of task to perform. They didn’t know what they would be doing next. We just recorded their brain activity while they let their minds wander. And then weeks later, we gave them puzzles to solve. And we looked at which participants solve more of these puzzles with a flash of insight and which of them solved them more analytically. And then we went back to their EEG’s and we compared their EEG’s. And we found really amazing differences between the brains of people who tend to solve problems with a flash of insight, and those who tend to solve them analytically. And we found is that the analytical solvers had more activity in the frontal lobes of their brain. When they weren’t even working on a problem. And the more insightful people, call them insightfuls, have more activity in posterior regions of the brain.

The frontal lobe of the brain, it organizes thought, it sets goals, it focuses your attention. And it seems like these analytical thinkers are habitually like that. And the insightful thinkers, they don’t have that frontal lobe cognitive control as strongly. And their thinking goes rogue. They may not be as organized, as focused. In fact, creative people tend to be distractible. They tend to be a little less organized and perhaps even a little rambley from time to time. But that ability allows them to try out all sorts of crazy ideas, crazy thoughts on the periphery of awareness. That are often really useful and creative. So your brain activity that we measure when you’re doing nothing can predict how you’re going to solve problems weeks later. Which we found, we were very surprised at that. So those are some of the precursors that we found.

Brett McKay: And so those precursors though, it can give you insights about … so you can’t control insights, but you can I guess provide an environment for them to happen more often. So the idea that precursor that happens two seconds before that that insight happens where you decide whether you’re going to solve this analytically or with an insight. If you’re going at a problem, just I’m going to solve this with brute force. You’re never going to solve it with an insight probably at that moment because you’re already in that mindset of solving it analytically.

John Kounios: Yes. So as I said, you can’t force insights. You can decide consciously to voluntarily attack a problem in an analytical fashion. A systematic, methodical way. You can try to coax an insight by shutting all that thought down, relaxing, closing your eyes perhaps. There are other things we can talk about too that will do that. But the important thing to keep in mind is although there are some people who are naturally more analytical and some who are naturally more insightful, virtually everyone we’ve studied, and we tested hundreds and hundreds of people. They can solve problems in either way, either with an aha moment or analytically. The thing is that they just are naturally inclined to do it one way or the other. But that means that everybody or almost everybody has the capability to do it either way. And if you have the capability to do it either way, then there are strategies that you can use to enhance whichever one of those you’re weaker at.

So there’s nobody who’s a pure … if someone were a pure insightful and only thought in aha moments, I don’t think they would last very long. You can’t go through life just having epiphanies and revelations, and waiting for them. That kind of person would not survive. Similarly, if a person is just purely analytical and only thinks in that way, that’s not anyone I would really want to sit down and talk to. They might survive, but there are certain kinds of situations, certain types of problems or realizations they just won’t be able to achieve. One of my favorite quotes is the English writer Somerset Maugham once said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

So the idea is that certain kinds of creative thought. And I don’t mean just writing a novel, I mean creative thought in everyday life. How do you get your car started? How do you get a toddler to eat vegetables? Things like that. Often take a leap of creative insight. And someone who doesn’t have leaps of creative insight, they can fill out their income tax forms. There are a lot of things they can do. But there are a lot of things that we take for granted that they won’t be able to do.

So it’s important that we have the ability to do both. Both of these ways of thinking are necessary and valuable, and complimentary. But often we want to have more insights because those seem more out of reach, more transformative. They give us really unusual ideas that can advance our lives in important ways. Whereas the analytical thinking, that’s something that by and large, your laptop computer can do.

Brett McKay: This is more of a philosophical question, but also you touched on this in your book, but the idea is so your brain has that mind blink, brain blink before it recognizes the insight. Your right prefrontal lobe. So basically saying that you recognize the idea. Was the idea always there? How did it get there? Was it your subconscious working on the problem? Where do those insights come from that we recognize in the insight moment?

John Kounios: That’s a great question. And we have a little bit of scientific evidence about this, but not a whole lot. And this whole field is so new, and it’s advancing very rapidly. So it’s kind of a moving target.

So as I mentioned, there are everyday instances or anecdotes where the idea probably did not exist prior to the insights. So the example of the engineer, Richard James and the slinky. He probably did not have an idea for slinky until he had the idea, because that wasn’t a problem he was working on. But we do have laboratory evidence. And this comes from work that Edward Bowden and Mark Beeman my colleagues, have experiments they did back in the 1990s and early 2000s. In which they would present a problem to someone. And then before they had a chance to solve it, they would show potential solutions like solution words, and ask them just to read those words as quickly as possible.

And what they found is that often they could read those words more quickly, the words that were actually solution words, more quickly compared to words that were not the solutions to the problem. So in other words, the brain must already have derived the solution word. It was unconscious. But when they saw that word on the screen, they could read it very quickly because it was already primed in their brains.

So there is good evidence that sometimes we have the solution already, we’re just not aware of it. And we have to grease the path a little bit or kick the side of the TV, or whatever analogy you want to use to shake it loose so that it pops into consciousness so we can have conscious access and use it.

Let’s walk through some things, because you highlight this in the book and you’ve done research on this. So you can’t force insights but you can nudge it a bit. What are some things, or environments, or proactive things that people can do to create an environment within their brain where they can have more insights?

Sure. There are a number of things that have been studied over the years. So probably the single most powerful factor that’s been identified that increases insights and creativity more generally, is mood. When you’re in a positive mood, you are more creative. When you’re in a negative mood like if you’re anxious, that primes analytical thinking. Now there are examples of people who have great ideas when they’re in a bad mood, but we’re talking on average.

So the basic idea is that the notion is of psychological safety. So for example, if you are in a situation where you feel anxious.

Now we could think back to early humans on the savanna in Africa, and you see a lion way off in the distance. You don’t want to be detected by that lion. You certainly don’t want to be eaten by the lion. So you think in a very deliberate, careful fashion. That anxiety, that sense of threat makes you think analytically because you can’t afford to make a mistake. A mistake will be fatal. If you do anything that allows the lion to detect your presence, you’re dinner.

So anxiety, even mild anxiety, the kind that we experience nowadays when we have a deadline approaching or something like that, shifts us into analytical thinking. You can’t afford to make a mistake. On the other hand, if you’re in a positive mood, that usually means that you don’t feel a sense of threat. When you don’t feel a sense of threat, then you can take chances because there’s no downside. And you can try things out. You can try out crazy ideas, you could try out long shot ideas. And that seems to be a basic principle of how mood influences creative thought. It gives you a positive mood, gives you permission, it gives you license to try out things that may be just wrong. That are in a sense risky. So anything you do that can put you in a positive mood is something that will make it more likely that you’ll have an insight.

Now, there are some people who under extreme threats, under real pressure, in life threatening situations, will have life saving insights. And we don’t really understand those people. There aren’t that many of them. And it would be hard to gather them and do studies of them. My speculation is that people who are able to function under that kind of stress, I’ll tell you a quick anecdote. One of my favorite anecdotes about this.

Back in 1949, there was a wildfire in Mann Gulch in Montana. And it was spreading quickly. So the government sent in a team of firefighters who dropped by parachutes and the fire was on one side of the canyon, the Gulch. And the team parachuted into the other side of the Gulch and then they started to descend into the Gulch to fight the fire. But then the wind changed direction, and jumped to their side of the canyon and started going up the wall of the canyon chasing them. And it was moving very quickly.

So the the team of firefighters, they dropped their equipment and they started running, climbing away from the fire. But the fire was just going too quickly. They were not going to be saved by running away. And the leader of the team, his name was Wag Dodge.

He all of a sudden stopped, and the other men must have thought he was crazy or that he was giving up. He stopped, he turned his back towards the fire. He took out a match, he lit the grass in front of him so that it burned a patch of ground. He crawled onto that patch of bare ground, and then the fire came up around him and passed him on both sides, and he was spared. And 13 of the other 15 firefighters perished in the flames.

Now this idea of an escape fire, that was already known to the Plains Indians, but it was not known to the US Forest Service at the time. And when he was asked about it, he said, “I don’t know where it came from, I just thought of it all of a sudden. I had nothing to lose. I tried it.” So this was a situation where this was as life threatening as it gets, and he had this fantastic aha moment.

Now one possibility is that he was just immune to stress, immune to fear. Another possibility is that maybe he had accepted death, and that might have lifted some of the anxiety and put him in a state where he could have this creative idea. No one knows. And this is actually a really important topic to be studying because we all want leaders who will be able to think creatively under the most extreme stress unimaginable. And if we can figure out how that works and how to encourage it, that would be a fantastic thing. But that just hasn’t been studied much or at all actually.

Brett McKay: So positive mood, it’s conducive to insights?

John Kounios: Yes.

Brett McKay: insights are more likely to happen?

John Kounios: Yes. So most people have a peak time of day. There are early birds, there are night owls, there are people who peak in the afternoon, I don’t know what you call those. And when you’re at your peak, then that’s when your analytical abilities are strongest. And they tend to swamp your more fragile, unconscious insightful thinking.

So if you are a morning person, you’ll get your best creative ideas at night. If you’re a night owl, you’ll get your best creative ideas in the morning. So essentially when you’re a little bit fuzzy thinking, when you’re not as sharp. An alcoholic drink, I’m not encouraging people to drink. But, studies have shown that when a person has a drink, that can increase their probability of having a sudden insight. Now of course, more than a little bit of alcohol and you won’t be able to do any kind of thinking whether insight or analytics. We’re talking about a very modest amount of drinking.

So anything like that, that will dull your analytical ability, will allow or enable these unconscious ideas to pop into awareness. Other factors that can play a role is anything that will spread your attention out, that will broaden your attention. Because if you broaden your attention, you’re expanding your scope of thought.

So for example, a lot of noted creative figures like to spend time walking outdoors. They get their ideas in nature walking around. Now that improves their mood of course, which helps insight. But also expanding your attention to fill a larger space. So for example, if you’re talking about office work. Little cubicles, that will encourage analytical thinking because it narrows and focuses your attention. But larger, open spaces, rooms with high ceilings and that are open. Your attention will expand to fill the space. And that broadens the scope of your thought.

Now of course there’s a big controversy about open offices because those can be also very distracting if you’re around a lot of colleagues who will be interrupting you. That’s not good, but the open spaces help.

Also anything with associations to open space and nature, and positive mood, and relaxation, like the color blue. The color blue tends to expand awareness and attention because it reminds one of the sky and the ocean. And that encourages aha moments. Whereas the color red, which has associations like blood, stop signs, fire engines, those all cause subtle anxiety and narrow the scope of thought and make you more analytical. Any objects that grab and focus your attention will also encourage analytical thought and discourage insightful thinking.

So an example would be if you have a letter opener on your desk that looks like a dagger, that might cause a subtle sense of anxiety. Put the thing in your drawer, keep it out of safe. Even soft things that have edges like furniture that has sharp edges and things like that can cause the subtle feeling of threat because it could potentially hurt you.

In particular, one pattern that really causes subtle anxiety is a sawtooth pattern. Because it resembles teeth, or serration on a knife or a saw. So the ideal creative environment for having insights has color blue, perhaps green nature colors, open, airy spaces. And it’s quiet, no distractions. There are no objects. You wouldn’t want to have striking pieces of art that grab your attention. You want to have soft rounded surfaces where nothing grabs and focuses your attention. So those are some of the environmental conditions that will promote insight.

Then probably one of the strongest factors too is sleep. Sleep is a very powerful way to have insights. Often people, there are many examples, historical examples and examples from common everyday experience of people awakening in the middle of the night with a great idea, or having that great idea while they’re lying in bed in the morning before they’re fully awake. And sleep does several things to supercharge insight.

One is when you get sleep, when you’ve been rested, you feel better, you’re in a better mood. And right there that improved mood enhances creative insight. Another is that during sleep, there’s a process called memory consolidation in which the memories you’ve acquired during the day are restructured and put into a different form in memory. And often, that memory consolidation process will bring out certain details in your experiences and in your knowledge, which are not obvious, which can form the basis for a sudden insight.

And then also sleep, what it helps you to do is it helps you to overcome impasse. When you’re stuck on a problem, that wrong idea that you’ve been working on that you’re stuck on, it has a certain hold over the mind. But when you sleep, you partially forget that idea, the bad idea. It recedes into the background and it allows weaker, perhaps unconscious ideas to bubble up into the surface.

So sleep is a really powerful way to have creative insight. In fact there’s this, I think really wrong idea that people who sleep more are in a sense weak or lazy. And I think it’s exemplified by something that Napoleon once said. Someone once asked Napoleon, “What’s the right amount of sleep for a person to get?” And Napoleon said, “Four hours for a man, six hours for a woman, eight hours for a fool.”

And that’s completely wrong because, and of course maybe that’s why he ended up exiled on an island in the Atlantic. That’s completely wrong because sleep is not just rest. It’s not a sign of weakness. I believe that sleep is mental work. While you’re asleep, your mind is working to reorganize your thinking, reorganize your knowledge, and working on solving problems. And sleep is, I wish we were paid for the time that we sleep because that is a part of work. So sleep is very powerful also.

Brett McKay: The idea of sleep, we’ve written an article on Salvador Dali. One thing he did to get his crazy surrealistic insights was he would nap while holding a key in his hand, and had his hand above a pie pan. So that when he did that dozing off, his body relaxes, his hand opens up and drops the key in the pan. And he’d wake up. And whatever thought was in his mind, he’d write it down.

It was a tactic, because usually for me, I’ve noticed whenever I had those insights when I’m falling asleep, it’s usually when I’m falling asleep or right when I wake up. It’s in between phases of awake and sleep time, that’s when I get them.

John Kounios: Yeah, and you may have had other ideas while you’re asleep and just not remembered them too. It’s hard to know. It’s important to write them down. In fact, there’s a story of a famous neuroscientist back in the 1920s. And he had this great idea that awakened him in the middle of the night. And he got up and he wrote the idea. And then in the morning he looked at the paper and he couldn’t read his handwriting, and he was really angry at himself. So that night, he went back to sleep the next night. He was awakened again by this great idea. And this time instead of writing it down, he went straight to the laboratory. And the experiment was actually, the idea for the experiment was actually fairly simple. He did the experiment right there that night, and he got a Nobel Prize for it.

So sometimes, in his case, the first time he did write it down. He didn’t remember it later. He wrote it down, but couldn’t read his handwriting because I guess he’d been too drowsy. So it really is important if you are awakened during the night by an idea to make sure it’s documented in a way that you can recover it later. Because there is a tendency for people to forget their dreams later on. I can’t imagine how many great ideas have been lost that way.

Brett McKay: Right. So you’re a scientist, so you’re paid to be analytical. But I’m curious, has this research, has it influenced the way … you structured your data in a way so you can receive more creative insights for your work?

John Kounios: Yes and no. I think most professors in research universities don’t have much freedom to structure their days in ways to enhance creativity. It’s just more committees, more paperwork. There’s not a lot of leeway to do that. But there are things that I’ve done that other people can do as well.

So for example, I commute on the train. And of course the train is, it’s an old train. It’s noisy. It’s bumpy, the whole thing. So what I do, I got my noise canceling headphones. I put those on, I put sunglasses on, I close my eyes, I think of whatever the problem is of the day. And I just let my mind drift. And I do get a number of my better ideas that way. I turn my cell phone off so I don’t get any phone calls, so I can’t be disturbed in that way.

The train is not an ideal environment because it’s not particularly comfortable and it’s not very quiet, but it’s at least a time when I can isolate myself. And I think most people, if they can just get a little bit of time where their smartphone is turned off. Where not only will they not be interrupted, that they’re not getting interruptions. There’s no feeling that they might be interrupted.

So for example, if I’m in my office, a phone call or an email will be an interruption. And just thinking that that might happen alters my thinking in a way that it diminishes my own creativity. So I have to go to say a coffee shop where I know no one knows where I am. And I turn my smart phone off. So no one, I don’t have to worry that someone is going to call me or interrupt me during a creative reverie.

But I think most of us are just busier and busier, and we just don’t have the time to put into those kinds of creative reveries anymore. Or even get enough sleep. So it’s hard, and you just have to make the time to do it one way or another. There’s no shortcut to that.

Brett McKay: John, is there someplace people can go to learn more about the book and your work?

John Kounios: Yes. You can find me on Twitter @JohnKounios. It’s one word. J-O-H-N K-O-U-N-I-O-S. And from my Twitter page, you can get links to my Google Sites page, which then has links to our book website, my personal webpage, my laboratory webpage, etc. So I guess the best way is, the gateway there is my Twitter page.

Brett McKay: Fantastical. Well John Kounios, thanks so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

John Kounios: Thank you. It’s been fun.

Brett McKay: My guest today is John Kounios. He’s the author of the book The Eureka Factor. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work on his Twitter. It’s Twitter @JohnKounios. Also check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website at where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles we’ve written years ago on pretty much everything. And if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of the Art of Manliness podcast, you can do so only on Stitcher Premium. Head over to, use code manliness at checkout to get a month trial free of premium. After that, download the Stitcher app on iOS or android. Start to enjoy ad free episodes of the Art of Manliness Podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I appreciate you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes. It helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think would like it. As always, thank you for the continued support. And until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you not only to listen to the AOM podcast, but to put it into action.


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