Sunday, June 21, 2009

Eureka Moments: Daydreaming is the Key to Scientific Discovery

Much is often made of logic, methodical reasoning and rationality in Science, but it seems from the latest research about human mind that the actual process of scientific discovery and insight is more akin to daydreaming.

The best example of this phenomenon is the German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé, who said in 1865, that he had discovered the ring shape of the benzene molecule after having a reverie or day-dream of a snake seizing its own tail, a common symbol in many ancient cultures known as the Ouroboros.

Here's a piece recently published in the Wall Street Journal that talks about the role of dreaming in gaining scientific insights and making discoveries:

It happened to Archimedes in the bath. To Descartes it took place in bed while watching flies on his ceiling. And to Newton it occurred in an orchard, when he saw an apple fall. Each had a moment of insight. To Archimedes came a way to calculate density and volume; to Descartes, the idea of coordinate geometry; and to Newton, the law of universal gravity.
Eureka Moments

Five light-bulb moments of understanding that revolutionized science.

In our fables of science and discovery, the crucial role of insight is a cherished theme. To these epiphanies, we owe the concept of alternating electrical current, the discovery of penicillin, and on a less lofty note, the invention of Post-its, ice-cream cones, and Velcro. The burst of mental clarity can be so powerful that, as legend would have it, Archimedes jumped out of his tub and ran naked through the streets, shouting to his startled neighbors: "Eureka! I've got it."

In today's innovation economy, engineers, economists and policy makers are eager to foster creative thinking among knowledge workers. Until recently, these sorts of revelations were too elusive for serious scientific study. Scholars suspect the story of Archimedes isn't even entirely true. Lately, though, researchers have been able to document the brain's behavior during Eureka moments by recording brain-wave patterns and imaging the neural circuits that become active as volunteers struggle to solve anagrams, riddles and other brain teasers.
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Following the brain as it rises to a mental challenge, scientists are seeking their own insights into these light-bulb flashes of understanding, but they are as hard to define clinically as they are to study in a lab.

To be sure, we've all had our "Aha" moments. They materialize without warning, often through an unconscious shift in mental perspective that can abruptly alter how we perceive a problem. "An 'aha' moment is any sudden comprehension that allows you to see something in a different light," says psychologist John Kounios at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "It could be the solution to a problem; it could be getting a joke; or suddenly recognizing a face. It could be realizing that a friend of yours is not really a friend."

These sudden insights, they found, are the culmination of an intense and complex series of brain states that require more neural resources than methodical reasoning. People who solve problems through insight generate different patterns of brain waves than those who solve problems analytically. "Your brain is really working quite hard before this moment of insight," says psychologist Mark Wheeler at the University of Pittsburgh. "There is a lot going on behind the scenes."
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Daydreaming is more demanding than it seems, researchers reported in "Experience Sampling During fMRI Reveals Default Network and Executive System Contributions to Mind Wandering" in Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences.

A positive mood makes an insight more likely, Northwestern University researchers reported in "A Brain Mechanism for Facilitation of Insight by Positive Affect" in the March edition of Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

In the journal Neuropsychologia, Drexel University scientists reported on "The Origins of Insight in Resting State Brain Activity."

Together, the two research teams reported that people who solved problems through insight had different brain wave patterns than people who don't. In PLoS Biology, they documented "Neural Activity When People Solve Verbal Problems with Insight" and the "Neural Basis of Solving Problems with Insight."

At the University of London's Goldsmith College, researchers reported in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience that brain waves heralding an insight can be detected 8 seconds before we become conscious of it.

In fact, our brain may be most actively engaged when our mind is wandering and we've actually lost track of our thoughts, a new brain-scanning study suggests. "Solving a problem with insight is fundamentally different from solving a problem analytically," Dr. Kounios says. "There really are different brain mechanisms involved."

By most measures, we spend about a third of our time daydreaming, yet our brain is unusually active during these seemingly idle moments. Left to its own devices, our brain activates several areas associated with complex problem solving, which researchers had previously assumed were dormant during daydreams. Moreover, it appears to be the only time these areas work in unison.

"People assumed that when your mind wandered it was empty," says cognitive neuroscientist Kalina Christoff at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who reported the findings last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As measured by brain activity, however, "mind wandering is a much more active state than we ever imagined, much more active than during reasoning with a complex problem."

She suspects that the flypaper of an unfocused mind may trap new ideas and unexpected associations more effectively than methodical reasoning. That may create the mental framework for new ideas. "You can see regions of these networks becoming active just prior to people arriving at an insight," she says.

In a series of experiments over the past five years, Dr. Kounios and his collaborator Mark Jung-Beeman at Northwestern University used brain scanners and EEG sensors to study insights taking form below the surface of self-awareness. They recorded the neural activity of volunteers wrestling with word puzzles and scanned their brains as they sought solutions.

Some volunteers found answers by methodically working through the possibilities. Some were stumped. For others, even though the solution seemed to come out of nowhere, they had no doubt it was correct.

In those cases, the EEG recordings revealed a distinctive flash of gamma waves emanating from the brain's right hemisphere, which is involved in handling associations and assembling elements of a problem. The brain broadcast that signal one-third of a second before a volunteer experienced their conscious moment of insight -- an eternity at the speed of thought.

The scientists may have recorded the first snapshots of a Eureka moment. "It almost certainly reflects the popping into awareness of a solution," says Dr. Kounios.

In addition, they found that tell-tale burst of gamma waves was almost always preceded by a change in alpha brain-wave intensity in the visual cortex, which controls what we see. They took it as evidence that the brain was dampening the neurons there similar to the way we consciously close our eyes to concentrate.

"You want to quiet the noise in your head to solidify that fragile germ of an idea," says Dr. Jung-Beeman at Northwestern.

At the University of London's Goldsmith College, psychologist Joydeep Bhattacharya also has been probing for insight moments by peppering people with verbal puzzles.

By monitoring their brain waves, he saw a pattern of high frequency neural activity in the right frontal cortex that identified in advance who would solve a puzzle through insight and who would not. It appeared up to eight seconds before the answer to a problem dawned on the test subject, Dr. Bhattacharya reported in the current edition of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

"It's unsettling," says Dr. Bhattacharya. "The brain knows but we don't."

So far, no one knows why problems sometimes trigger an insight or what makes us more inclined to the Eureka experience at some moments but not at others. Insight does favor a prepared mind, researchers determined.

Even before we are presented with a problem, our state of mind can affect whether or not we will likely resort to insightful thinking. People in a positive mood were more likely to experience an insight, researchers at Drexel and Northwestern found. "How you are thinking beforehand is going to affect what you do with the problems you get," Dr. Jung-Beeman says.

By probing the anatomy of 'aha,' researchers hope for clues to how brain tissue can manufacture a new idea. "Insight is crucial to intellect," Dr. Bhattacharya says.

Taken together, these findings highlight a paradox of mental life. They remind us that much of our creative thought is the product of neurons and nerve chemistry outside our awareness and beyond our direct control.

"We often assume that if we don't notice our thoughts they don't exist," says Dr. Christoff in Vancouver, "When we don't notice them is when we may be thinking most creatively."

Source: Wall Street Journal

Related Links:

Top Ten Eureka Moments

Teaching Facts versus Reasoning

Re-imagining Pakistan

Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and Battle for Rationality


Riaz Haq said...

Here are some excerpts from an interesting piece on daydreaming-mindwandering in NY Times:

... now that researchers have been analyzing those stray thoughts, they’ve found daydreaming to be remarkably common — and often quite useful. A wandering mind can protect you from immediate perils and keep you on course toward long-term goals. Sometimes daydreaming is counterproductive, but sometimes it fosters creativity and helps you solve problems.

Consider, for instance, these three words: eye, gown, basket. Can you think of another word that relates to all three? If not, don’t worry for now. By the time we get back to discussing the scientific significance of this puzzle, the answer might occur to you through the “incubation effect” as your mind wanders from the text of this article — and, yes, your mind is probably going to wander, no matter how brilliant the rest of this column is.

Mind wandering, as psychologists define it, is a subcategory of daydreaming, which is the broad term for all stray thoughts and fantasies, including those moments you deliberately set aside to imagine yourself winning the lottery or accepting the Nobel. But when you’re trying to accomplish one thing and lapse into “task-unrelated thoughts,” that’s mind wandering.

“People assume mind wandering is a bad thing, but if we couldn’t do it during a boring task, life would be horrible,” Dr. Smallwood says. “Imagine if you couldn’t escape mentally from a traffic jam.”

You’d be stuck contemplating the mass of idling cars, a mental exercise that is much less pleasant than dreaming about a beach and much less useful than mulling what to do once you get off the road. There’s an evolutionary advantage to the brain’s system of mind wandering, says Eric Klinger, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota and one of the pioneers of the field.

“While a person is occupied with one task, this system keeps the individual’s larger agenda fresher in mind,” Dr. Klinger writes in the “Handbook of Imagination and Mental Simulation”. “It thus serves as a kind of reminder mechanism, thereby increasing the likelihood that the other goal pursuits will remain intact and not get lost in the shuffle of pursuing many goals.”

Of course, it’s often hard to know which agenda is most evolutionarily adaptive at any moment. If, during a professor’s lecture, students start checking out peers of the opposite sex sitting nearby, are their brains missing out on vital knowledge or working on the more important agenda of finding a mate? Depends on the lecture.

Yet when people sit down in a laboratory with nothing on the agenda except to read a novel and report whenever their mind wanders, in the course of a half hour they typically report one to three episodes. And those are just the lapses they themselves notice, thanks to their wandering brains being in a state of “meta-awareness,” as it’s called by Dr. Schooler,
Where exactly does the mind go during those moments? By observing people at rest during brain scans, neuroscientists have identified a “default network” that is active when people’s minds are especially free to wander. When people do take up a task, the brain’s executive network lights up to issue commands, and the default network is often suppressed.

Another school of psychologists, which includes the Santa Barbara researchers, theorizes that both networks are working on agendas beyond the immediate task. That theory could help explain why studies have found that people prone to mind wandering also score higher on tests of creativity, like the word-association puzzle mentioned earlier. Perhaps, by putting both of the brain networks to work simultaneously, these people are more likely to realize that the word that relates to eye, gown and basket is ball, as in eyeball, ball gown and basketball.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's a recent Newsweek column by Sharon Begley on "limits of reason."

Women are bad drivers, Saddam plotted 9/11, Obama was not born in America, and Iraq had weapons of mass destruction: to believe any of these requires suspending some of our critical--thinking faculties and succumbing instead to the kind of irrationality that drives the logically minded crazy. It helps, for instance, to use confirmation bias (seeing and recalling only evidence that supports your beliefs, so you can recount examples of women driving 40mph in the fast lane). It also helps not to test your beliefs against empirical data (where, exactly, are the WMD, after seven years of U.S. forces crawling all over Iraq?); not to subject beliefs to the plausibility test (faking Obama’s birth certificate would require how widespread a conspiracy?); and to be guided by emotion (the loss of thousands of American lives in Iraq feels more justified if we are avenging 9/11).

The fact that humans are subject to all these failures of rational thought seems to make no sense. Reason is supposed to be the highest achievement of the human mind, and the route to knowledge and wise decisions. But as psychologists have been documenting since the 1960s, humans are really, really bad at reasoning. It’s not just that we follow our emotions so often, in contexts from voting to ethics. No, even when we intend to deploy the full force of our rational faculties, we are often as ineffectual as eunuchs at an orgy.

Riaz Haq said...

Here's a NY Times story on study of creativity:

A gift for spatial reasoning — the kind that may inspire an imaginative child to dismantle a clock or the family refrigerator — may be a greater predictor of future creativity or innovation than math or verbal skills, particularly in math, science and related fields, according to a study published Monday in the journal Psychological Science.

The study looked at the professional success of people who, as 13-year-olds, had taken both the SAT, because they had been flagged as particularly gifted, as well as the Differential Aptitude Test. That exam measures spatial relations skills, the ability to visualize and manipulate two-and three-dimensional objects. While math and verbal scores proved to be an accurate predictor of the students’ later accomplishments, adding spatial ability scores significantly increased the accuracy.

The researchers, from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, said their findings make a strong case for rewriting standardized tests like the SAT and ACT to focus more on spatial ability, to help identify children who excel in this area and foster their talents.

“Evidence has been mounting over several decades that spatial ability gives us something that we don’t capture with traditional measures used in educational selection,” said David Lubinski, the lead author of the study and a psychologist at Vanderbilt. “We could be losing some modern-day Edisons and Fords.”

Following up on a study from the 1970s, Dr. Lubinski and his colleagues tracked the professional progress of 563 students who had scored in the top 0.5 percent on the SAT 30 years ago, when they were 13. At the time, the students had also taken the Differential Aptitude Test.

Years later, the children who had scored exceptionally high on the SAT also tended to be high achievers — not surprisingly — measured in terms of the scholarly papers they had published and patents that they held. But there was an even higher correlation with success among those who had also scored highest on the spatial relations test, which the researchers judged to be a critical diagnostic for achievement in technology, engineering, math and science.

Cognitive psychologists have long suspected that spatial ability — sometimes referred to as the “orphan ability” for its tendency to go undetected — is key to success in technical fields. Earlier studies have shown that students with a high spatial aptitude are not only overrepresented in those fields, but may receive little guidance in high school and underachieve as a result. (Note to parents: Legos and chemistry sets are considered good gifts for the spatial relations set.)

The correlation has “been suspected, but not as well researched” as the predictive power of math skills, said David Geary, a psychologist at the University of Missouri, who was not involved in the study, which was funded by the John Templeton Foundation. The new research is significant, he said, for showing that “high levels of performance in STEM fields” — science, technology, engineering and math — “are not simply related to math abilities.”...

Riaz Haq said...

There is an extraordinary moment in “Horse Soldiers,” a book about the US Special Forces team that went into Afghanistan right after 9/11, when the men realize they need to ride horses into battle to defeat the Taliban. Dropped into a culture they knew little about, in a land of unknown and threatening terrain, with tools that were insufficient for the mission, and dependent on a group of distrustful people, the SF team did what it was trained to do—design a valid new pathway to their goal.

The 12-man, multi-disciplinary team went through the ritual of innovation—they observed and empathized with the local culture, collaborated among themselves and with their partners, brainstormed to generate new options, iterated a few and chose the best one. In the end, that best option was to get on a horse. The team mounted up to show respect to the culture, establish their social position as warriors, and effectively transport their high tech GPS and laser sights across the mountains and desert to call in air support and achieve their goal of victory in battle.

The Special Forces have a very high CQ—Creativity Quotient. Another way of putting it is that they have a high DI—Design Intelligence. Teams know how to go into unknown, changing, dangerous cultural spaces, do fast ethnography, brainstorm, collaborate, iterate options, choose the most valid solution for the situation and execute. They would never call it Design Thinking, but that is what it is. They learn it in training, through education. It is no accident that this paradigm of “as if…” organization and behavior is spreading not only through militaries around the world, but through the smartest global corporations as well.

So it is time for individuals and organizations to ask themselves—what is our CQ? Just as IQ and EQ has proven to be measures of specific capabilities, the capacity for creativity is increasingly the core to building value in these uncertain and treacherous times. And just as IQ and EQ scores can be raised significantly for anyone by teaching and training, so too can CQ be bolstered for individuals and organizations. When Rotman’s DesignWorks holds a workshop, it raises the CQ of the participants. Ditto for IDEO, ZIBA, Continuum or Jump.

At a recent symposium on the Future of Design at Stanford University, a group of design/innovation practioners and educators (including myself) came up with the concept of Design Intelligence/ Creativity Quotient. We hope it takes Design Thinking and the conversation around innovation to the next level. The concept really came home to me when Bill Burnett, the Executive Director of the Stanford University Design Program, said he wanted to add an additional screening measure to the SATs and GREs that students submit for admission to the school. “We measure math, verbal and writing capabilities, why not creativity?” Why not indeed.

There are two roads that need to be taken to build out the concept of CQ/DI. Within the design/innovation education space, at Stanford, RCA, Einhovin, Parsons, IIT, Rotman and other schools, the next step is to use the idea of Design Intelligence to deepen the notion of Design Thinking. DT, which focusses on creative and generative methodology, can take DI to embrace ideas emanating out of behavioral and social economics, systems design and behavioral sciences....