The Eureka Moment

Excerpts from the presentation at the Minerva Forum, March 11th 2020:

            There is something inherently mysterious about the moment of insight. We have all had that moment when the solution to a problem finally dawns on you: “Eureka!” It is a Greek word meaning “I have found it!” These moments have come to define a litany of discoveries.  The wheel, gravity, even the slinky- each of these ideas came from toiling minds that had the drive to imagine and create to help us function and understand our world better.


    Archimedes, the Greek mathematician and engineer, is the father of Eureka moments. According to legend, he was contemplating how to calculate the weight of gold as he was getting into the bath when the displacement of water causing it to rise caused him to exclaim “Eureka!” He discovered a way to calculate the volume of an irregular solid, in this case a gold crown, by submerging it in water and measuring the volume of water it displaced. This ultimately led to discoveries involving both density and buoyancy.

The Eureka Moment

 There are a few essential features that neuroscientists and psychologists use to define the insight experience.  Before there is a breakthrough, there has to be a mental block, an impasse. The other key factor that follows the impasse is when the insight arrives there is complete certainty of the solution. In the last twenty years, the advancement in the knowledge of brain function has helped shed light on these moments through brain scans. Language is so complex that the brain needs to process it in two different ways at the same time. The brain needs to see the forest and the trees. The right hemisphere helps you see the forest as a whole, while the left hemisphere allows you to see the tree as a singular entity.  The right side of the brain does everything that leads the left side's interpretation out of the dictionary definition, such as the emotional charge in a sentence or a metaphor. The left side of the brain stores the primary meaning of the word while the right side works on the connotation.

 Night in the Forest

Brain imaging is revealing how are minds produce insight. To isolate the brain activity, doctors developed a set of word puzzles that could be solved either by insight or analysis. The Remote Associates Test (RAT) is used to determine a person's creative potential. It consists of three common stimulus words that appear to be unrelated; you must think of a fourth word that is somehow related to each of the first three words. Some examples- see if you can figure them out!:

Pine         Crab        Sauce

Shake        Made      Second

Cup        Party      Green

Head       Book     Tree

Walk     Wedding    Pan

Creativity depends on the ability to make associations that are not immediately obvious. There are two cognitive paths easy to differentiate. Did you cycle through each word? Or did the answer arrive more like a revelation out of the air? People who solved the word puzzle with insight activated a specific subset of cortical areas. Although the answer appeared to be out of nowhere the mind has an infinite library of associations: “ a cacophony of competing ideas was carefully preparing itself for the breakthrough.” The first areas of the brain that were activated were those involved with the  executive control of the  prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulated cortex. This stage is referred to as the Preparatory Phase since the brain is devoting its considerable computational power to solving the puzzle. Some areas of the brain go silent to help suppress distractions. The cortex does this for the same reason we close our eyes to focus.


The Fragile World Series                  

The next phase is the Search Phase . The search can quickly get frustrating and it takes only a few seconds before people feel that they have reached an impasse because most of the answers your brain comes up with are going to be wrong. It’s up to the executive control areas to keep searching, change strategies and start searching somewhere else. Just about the moment the brain is about to give up an insight appears. In 2001, a neuroscientist published an influential paper that laid out their theory how the prefrontal cortex controls the rest of the brain.  Today it is considered the conductor of the orchestra responsible for deciding which parts of the brain  is needed to apply the information to come up with a solution.

There is also the Relaxation Phase while mulling things over- this is crucial for larger scale problem solving.  I always think of it as marinating time  or cognitive deliberation.  We do some of our best thinking when we are half asleep, distracted,  in the shower or when we  purposely decide to give our minds a break. Often in the studio the artwork I am focused on just leaves me frustrated it is a creative tug of war...not sure what is the next step while the artwork hanging next to it gets resolved like magic! It is extremely helpful to get sidetracked away from the primary focus that is why I keep several artworks in progress.  There are times in the studio where the music helps me to unfocus. The best way to think about a complex problem  is to immerse yourself in the problem until you reach an impasse then  distract yourself; go for a walk , get a coffee, read a book, play with your dog, call a friend..  The answer will arrive when you least expect it- Viola, breakthrough!

Faux Prague Studio Shot, 2020

The integrative theory suggests why we can instantly recognize an insight even when it seems surprising . The brain continues it’s  pursuit of the answer we just did not know it. Our consciousness is very limited in capacity - the prefrontal lobe makes all these connections without our knowledge. When the circuit in the right hemisphere finally generates the necessary associations, the prefrontal cortex is able to identify it instantly and the insight erupts into awareness.

     The suddenness of the insight is measured on a machine called the EEG  it registers a spike of Gamma Rhythm which is the highest electrical frequency generated by the brain. The Gamma rhythm is thought to come from the binding of neurons as cells distributed across the cortex- they draw themselves together into a new network which is then able to enter consciousness. It’s as if the insight has gone incandescent! At a certain point you have to acknowledge that your brain knows much more than you do consciously. A Eureka moment is a fleeting glimpse of what your brain is capable of.


The Magic of the Night                    

Historic Eureka Moments

So let’s walk down the road of  two spectacular but very different Eureka Moments. I looked for people you’ve likely never heard of but who in one way or another, directly or indirectly, by intention or accident, changed the way we lead our daily life.


               The Audience Collection: Before the Lecuture                   

Malcom McLean engineered one of the vital shifts in transportation in the last century. his development of containerized shipping changed world trade. It has been compared to the transition from sail to steam. It reduced shipping times from the United States to Europe by some four weeks, cutting loading and unloading at the docks from days to hours and enabling a vessel to carry four to five times as much freight as before. Workers no longer dreaded descending into ship holds, and cargoes rode in the far greater security of sealed containers. 

Born in 1914 in rural Maxton, North Carolina, McLean bought his first truck in 1931. Six years later he found himself cooling his heels while his truck’s contents were loaded onto a ship in Hoboken, New Jersey. It occurred to him, he would later recall, that there must be some way simply to lift the trailer right onto the vessel and save enormous time and labor.

The idea stayed with him over 20 years as his single truck multiplied to several, tens, and then hundreds. After he had built McLean Trucking into one of the nation’s largest freight fleets, he had the resources to return to his initial idea: designing universal uniform shipping containers and a specially fitted ship to streamline international trade. On April 26, 1956, the first of these container ships, the Ideal X , left Port Newark a few miles from where McLean had his initial Eureka Moment. It would take a full decade of battles against entrenched shipping firms, railroads, and unions before McLean went international, dispatching a container ship to Rotterdam in 1966.


     Container Shipping Yard                      The Audience Collection: Seaport Slip


Containerization can best be viewed as a technical Northwest Passage or Suez Canal, changing not only economics but geopolitics. The ability to streamline and connect land and sea transport more profoundly became more influential than canals connecting bodies of water. “Intermodality”— the linkage between modes of transportation—became a favorite word not only of the freight industry but of executives and politicians. It made it possible for Americans to eat apples from New Zealand, record on Japanese VCRs, wear Hong Kong-produced jeans, and drink French Perrier water. Today, if you use it, eat it, or wear it, it probably reached you via a shipping container influenced by the gamma rhythms of Malcom McLean's mind.

This eureka moment and innovation profoundly impacted our everyday lives, the frontier of convenience and accessibility that American’s have always been known for. But these breakthrough moments have also stemmed from life threatening situations.

Wag Dodge, Circa 1949

 Wag Dodge and the fire of Mann Gulch, Montana inspired an instantaneous moment of clarity that has saved many lives to this day. The summer of 1949 in Missoula Montana was an extremely dry season. A parachute brigade was assembled to fight any potential fires that erupted in the area's close to Missoula. There was a lightning fire spotted in a remote pine forest known as Mann Gulch late that summer; three miles long where the great plains meet the Rocky Mountains, pine trees give way to tall grasses and steep cliffs. Wag Dodge and a parachute brigade of 15 were dispatched to control the Mann Gulch blaze. Once the team was safely on the ground, the brigade witnessed an updraft and fierce winds howled through the canyon as the fire sucked in the surrounding air. In a matter of seconds the fire began to devour the grass, hurling toward the smoke jumpers at 700 feet a second.

Wag screamed at his men to retreat. They dropped their gear and started running up the steep canyon walls trying to reach the top of the ridge. He realized the fire could not be outrun; the gulch was too steep, the flames too fast. So Dodge stopped running. The decision was not suicidal as it would appear; in a moment of desperate insight, he devised an escape plan. He lit a match and ignited the ground around him- the flames quickly moving up the grassy slope He stepped into the ash and shadow of his fire so he was surrounded by a buffer of burned land. He then wet his handkerchief with water, covered his mouth and laid down in the smoldering embers waiting for the fire to pass by him. This realization that the fire could not ignite what was already burned came from the most innate system: fight or flight. Flight wasn’t an option, so Dodge used his mind to fight, and overcame the odds.


Mann Gulch, Missoula MT                        Smoke, Acrylic on Canvas

13 of the smoke jumpers died in the Mann Gulch Fire. 71 years later, there are still white crosses to mark the spot where the men died. Wag Dodge could never explain how his eureka moment came about, but he knew immediately it was the answer to survive the fire. Dodge survived, nearly unharmed. This method is standard practice to control fires today, now called an “escape fire.”

Ordinary life is shaped for the most part by ordinary people with the opportunity and necessity to put new ideas together. These enlightening moments by truly influential people illustrates a layer of history where quiet people studying their discipline change our lives in ways that affect us through and through, every day.

** If you are at an impasse you can Email me for the answers to the word puzzle!**


reference resources : American Heritage ,The New Yorker ,The Brain That Changes Itself