See Inside Scientific American Mind Volume 25, Issue 4

A Step-by-Step Guide to Your Next Creative Breakthrough

Psychologists have demystified the aha! moment

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Take a moment to look at the image on the opposite page. What do you see? Just a neural network? Perhaps you spotted the hidden figure. If so, you have just had a moment of insight. You may have felt a similar jolt when discovering the solution to a math problem, understanding a joke or metaphor, or realizing something unexpected about yourself. These aha moments occur when your brain spontaneously reinterprets information to reach a novel, nonobvious conclusion.

I painted Neurons a few years ago for an art exhibit. I had designed the piece to portray the idea that our brain's neural networks make us who we are. It was only after joining psychologist James T. Enns's vision laboratory at the University of British Columbia in 2013 that I had my own abrupt realization: I recognized how my art could inform science. Using this piece, along with other hidden-object images, I investigated how an individual's focus and attention change when experiencing an unexpected revelation.

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