The spark of epiphanies: Q&A with John Kounios

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Cognitive neuroscientist John Kounios was curious: what happens in the brain when someone has a great idea? And so the Drexel University psychology professor designed an experiment to measure subjects’ brain activity as they solved problems. In a talk given at TED@New York — one of 14 events that was part of the 2013 Talent Search — Kounios outlines what is required for lightbulb-over-the-head moments.

You just talked about this wonderful story of a fireman and the neuroscience of the a-ha moment. What is it about this idea that makes you want to spread it to the world?

The world faces a lot of problems. Certain kinds of problems can be solved in a linear, step-by-step, incremental way. We can solve those kinds of problems using procedures that we already know. But when you’re encountering a novel problem — a very complex problem — you need to make a leap. You need to have a sudden insight, an a-ha moment. You need to look at it from a different perspective.

In the story that I told, Wag Dodge was looking at a fire, and he had the make the mental leap to thinking of the fire as the solution. Now, there is no step by step, logical procedure for doing that.

You have to completely restructure your way of thinking about things in order to do that. The problems that the world faces now are enormously complex, and are not like problems that civilization has faced in the past. We need that kind of breakthrough thinking, creative insight, whatever you want to call it. And that’s why we need to reform educational systems, reform our procedures for solving problems in order to take account of this other way of thinking, and to find ways to promote this other way of thinking if we’re ever going to survive as a species.

Presumably, after the fact, we can imagine a series of thoughts that can get us to the creative solution. You can imagine Wag saying, “I need to survive. How do I create a safe space? I know I can set it on fire.” Is that common problem where people will have strokes of insight and imagine that they used an analytical process to get there after the fact?

Yes. I remember reading an interview with a scientist — whose name I can’t remember — who had won an award. They asked him, “Did you have some breakthrough?” And he said, “No, no, no. I just worked on the problem increment by increment.” And then at the end of the interview he’s describing this moment where he was in the bathroom and he had this idea.

What happens often, especially if you look at interviews of scientists, is they think back on their whole career. What comes to mind is the years and years and years of work they put into something. And there were insights here and there, these sudden insights, but often those shrink in one’s memory in comparison with the massive work over years that was toiled. But, we find, looking at scientific careers, that they are punctuated by these sudden insights.

Another thing is that often scientists have learned to suppress talking about these insights, because if you’re writing a grant proposal, you can’t say, “Here’s a completely different way of looking at the problem.” They’ll never fund you, not in a billion years. You have to describe this very conservative, step by step procedure, even if that’s not how you got to where you are. You might have an insight, you might have an idea, but then you have to go back and cover your tracks, and to describe how you arrived at this in a gradual way, otherwise the granting agencies will say, “This is too risky. You have no foundation for this idea.”

Can your neuroscience research can be used to talk people into looking for and using creative insights more?

I think what it does is that it demonstrates that there are two very different ways of thinking. It demonstrates that you cannot just assume this linear pathway to solutions and to knowledge. That there are ways to short-circuit the system. If you don’t take that into account and you put restrictions that force people into the incremental pathway, then you’re going to be stunting the advancement of knowledge, stunting the solution of problems which are critical to us all.

Watch out for more Q&As from the TED@NY event throughout this week. Head to TalentSearch.TED.com to watch and rate these talks, as well as those from the 13 other stops along the TED2013 Talent Search tour.