Eureka! Flashes of insight can be personally transformative...

By Bruce Grierson, Psychology Today

Flashes of insight can be personally transformative, creatively inspiring, or even spiritually transcendent. Is there a way to manufacture an “aha moment,” or at least improve the odds of having one?

Simon Lovell was 31 and a professional con man who had spun the gambling tricks he’d learned from his grandfather into a lucrative if bloody-minded business fleecing strangers. Without hesitation or remorse, he left his marks broken in hotels all over the world.

Nothing suggested that this day in 1988 would be any different. Lovell, in Europe, had spotted his victim in a bar, plied him with drinks, and drawn him into a “cross”—a classic con game in which the victim is made to believe he’s part of a foolproof get-rich scheme. The con went perfectly. “I took him for an extremely large amount of money,” Lovell said later.

Lovell hustled the drunken man out of the hotel room and left him in the hallway for security to deal with. But then something unexpected happened. The mark went to pieces. “I’d never seen a man break down that badly, ever,” Lovell recalled. “He was just sliding down the wall, weeping and wailing.”

What followed was a moment Lovell would look back on as the hinge point of his life. “It was as if a light suddenly went on. I thought: This. Is. Really. Bad. For the first time, I actually felt sorry for someone.”

Lovell’s next move was hard even for him to believe. He returned the guy his money. Then he went back inside the hotel room, sat down, poured a drink, and declared himself done with this dodge. “There was an absolute epiphany that I just couldn’t do it anymore.” The next day he felt different. Lighter. “I had become,” he said, “a real human being again.” He never ran another con.

In the decades that followed, Lovell turned his gift for smooth patter and sleight-of-hand into a successful one-man show that ran off-Broadway for eight years. After he suffered a stroke, good wishes and cash donations for his care poured in from friends and fellow magicians. In his professional world and well beyond it, Lovell became respected, even beloved. His rehabilitation was complete.

But a central mystery remained. That moment in the hotel was Lovell’s wake-up call. But what is a wake-up call? What could possibly explain an event so unexpected, forceful, and transformative that it cleaves a life in two: before and after?

Most of the time, ideas develop from the steady percolation and evaluation of thoughts and feelings. But every so often, if you’re lucky, a blockbuster notion breaks through in a flash of insight that’s as unexpected as it is blazingly clear. So-called “aha moments” can be deeply personal and even existential, prompting the realization that you should quit your job, divorce your spouse, move to another city, mend a broken relationship, abandon an addictive behavior, or, like Lovell, redirect your moral compass. They can also be creative, generating the brilliant idea for a tech startup, the theme of a musical composition, the plot point of a novel, or the answer to an engineering quandary. In all cases, you apprehend something that you were blind to before.

The early-20th-century psychologist William James described such personal moments of clarity, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, as a snap-resolution of the “divided self.” It’s as if a whole lifetime’s worth of growth is compressed into a single instant as dense as a collapsed star.

That’s how it felt to Leroy Schulz. Driving home from a wedding in Canada late one night, Schulz glimpsed a ghostly form on the highway median surging toward his headlights. He didn’t have time to brake. He barely had time to turn his face away from the flying glass as the moose’s head hit the windshield. “Had I been a half-second slower, the whole mass of it would have come into the car,” Schulz said recently. “I have no doubt I’d have been decapitated.” Several motorists who witnessed the crash approached the wreck in shock. “I can’t believe you’re alive,” one gasped.

There was no life-changing epiphany at that precise moment or even in the immediate aftermath. It was more like numb shock that gripped Schulz. But his near-fatal experience seeded something, and what followed a few weeks later when he was going about his daily routine “was one of those panoramic moments when you get your bearings and decide whether you’re on the right path or not,” he says.

Schulz thought: What advice would the 90-year-old me give to the me of right now? He was a technology consultant who had long dabbled in photography. “I said to myself that if I don’t take the path of being a full-time photographer, I will regret it.”

So he went for it. His background interest elbowed its way to the front, and he became a successful portrait and commercial photographer. Although he can’t prove it, Schulz believes that hitting the moose actually changed his biochemistry, unlocking something in his brain that prompted his shift in perspective. “I’ve often wondered: If I hadn’t hit the moose, would I be a full-time photographer right now?” he reflects. “I don’t think so. I think I would have continued on the path I was on, and still there would be a part of me that would wonder, What if? It was that raw reality of facing what could have been imminent death that pushed me over the edge.”

For his co-authored book, Quantum Change, William Miller, an emeritus professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of New Mexico, interviewed 55 people who had experienced sudden realizations and life transformations. He found that by no means were all of the triggers, or even most of them, as dramatic as Schulz’s encounter with the moose or Lovell’s confrontation with his emotionally shattered victim. Many were downright banal. Among the things people were doing during or immediately preceding their moments of quantum change were walking to a nightclub, cleaning a toilet, watching TV, lying in bed, and preparing to shower.

There was a striking similarity, however, in how the moments felt, with many subjects reporting that it seemed more like a message revealed to them from outside than something their own minds had ginned up. It felt foreign, mystical even. Which may explain why so many historical accounts of this nature have been interpreted as communications from the Divine.

These days, no scientists consider the supernatural as a probable explanation for aha moments. And in the past 10 years or so, studies of the cognitive neuroscience of insight have begun to give us clues as to what they really are.

The Idle Brain

In 2004, Mark Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist and leading investigator of insight and creative cognition, first gave a group of experimental subjects the “remote associates test” in his lab at Northwestern University. A kind of brain-teaser designed to produce associative leaps of thought...

Read the full article: Grierson, B. (2015, Mar). Eureka! Psychology Today.

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