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New insights on insight in the brain

Insight is that "ah-ha!" moment when we get a joke, recognize a hidden image in "Where's Waldo," or solve a problem. The Greek mathematician and scientist Archimedes is said to have jumped from his bath and run through the streets naked shouting "Eureka!" after his insight into how to measure the volume of objects by submerging them in water. Understanding insight is important because it has led to some of humanity's most important scientific advances. While the modern scientific study of insight has existed since the 1950s, only in the last decade has the powerful tool of cognitive neuroscience been applied to the problem. Tools such as the electroencephalogram (EEG) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) are being used to unravel the neural mechanisms that underlie creative insights. Studying how insight arises in the brain is a challenge, but NSF-funded neuroscientists developed a task that allows them to study insight in the laboratory. Volunteers were asked to solve dozens of word puzzles while their brains were scanned with EEG or fMRI. One puzzle was an anagram, which requires the formation of a new word from a set of letters (LISTEN = SILENT is an anagram). Subjects pressed a button the moment they became aware of the solution to the anagram and reported whether the solution came in a flash of insight or through a more deliberate strategy. For puzzles that were solved with insight, the researchers observed a unique pattern of neural activity. In addition to this finding, the burst of high frequency activity was preceded by something quite unexpected. About one and a half seconds before the subject pressed the button, the EEG in the right visual cortex began to oscillate at a very low frequency, which is believed to reflect a suppression of neural processing.

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