Yes, that eureka moment hits like a bolt from the blue

Left: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg told Harvard graduates on May 25 that the notion of eureka moments as seen in movies is a "dangerous lie". Left, below: In the movie The Social Network, actor Andrew Garfield's character Eduardo Saverin writes a
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg told Harvard graduates on May 25 that the notion of eureka moments as seen in movies is a "dangerous lie".PHOTO: REUTERS
Left: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg told Harvard graduates on May 25 that the notion of eureka moments as seen in movies is a "dangerous lie". Left, below: In the movie The Social Network, actor Andrew Garfield's character Eduardo Saverin writes a
In the movie The Social Network, actor Andrew Garfield's character Eduardo Saverin writes a formula on a glass pane, while Jesse Eisenberg, who plays Mr Zuckerberg, watches.PHOTO: YOUTUBE SCREENGRAB

In the commencement address he delivered at Harvard last month, Mr Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, warned the graduating students not to trust the story of innovation that Hollywood promotes - namely, "the idea of a single eureka moment" in which a lone thinker has a groundbreaking epiphany. He characterised this idea as "a dangerous lie" that discourages real creativity.

"You know what else movies get wrong about innovation?" Mr Zuckerberg added. "No one writes maths formulas on glass. That's not a thing." Actually, that is a thing, although sometimes people carve their formulas in stone if there isn't any glass to write on.

One day in 1843, for instance, the Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton was strolling along the Royal Canal in Dublin when he had a sudden insight. As he later described it, "an electric circuit seemed to close; and a spark flashed forth". Hamilton's epiphany concerned so-called complex numbers. His idea, which took the form of a mathematical equation, would become (and remains today) an important tool for engineers and physicists. Hamilton immediately chiselled the equation on a stone bridge spanning the canal.

As this anecdote suggests, the eureka moment is not "a dangerous lie". On the contrary, it is a real and benevolent force of innovation and progress.

Many advancements have resulted from a single bolt of understanding. Other examples include the geneticist Barbara McClintock's comprehension of translocation of genetic material; Paul McCartney's hearing the melody of Yesterday in his head as he awoke one morning; the pharmacologist Otto Loewi's realisation about how nerve cells communicate with one another; and the Buddha's insight into the nature of human suffering.

Laboratory research backs up the historical accounts. Experiments that the cognitive psychologist Roderick W. Smith and I conducted in the 1990s showed that a person can solve a problem - say, an anagram - by having the solution become available to him or her suddenly and in a complete chunk: Insights do sometimes spring to mind in their final, turnkey form. More recent research has shown that these "aha" solutions tend to be more reliable than consciously, methodically worked-out answers.

With respect to Mr Zuckerberg (whose speech was otherwise uplifting and laudable), the idea of the eureka moment isn't oppressive. It's liberating. To know that a great idea can pop into your head at any moment is a thrilling - and in the face of frustration, sustaining - thought.

Brain-imaging studies from my laboratory and the lab of my collaborator, Professor Mark Beeman, show that eureka moments are associated with a distinctive burst of high-frequency activity in the brain's right temporal lobe. This burst of activity is preceded by a brief "brain blink" during which a person is momentarily less aware of his or her environment. Neither of these neural patterns is detectable when a person solves a problem analytically.

Some people are naturally more likely to have eureka moments than others - their brains seem to operate in a slightly different fashion - but almost everyone has these creative insights from time to time. It's even possible to cultivate them. Studies have revealed factors that can nudge a person's brain into a state that is amenable to eureka moments. One of the most potent, as my colleagues and I have demonstrated, is emotion: People tend to have creative insights when they are in a positive, relaxed mood. When they are anxious, their thinking narrows and becomes analytical and cautious, which can help them to critique and refine ideas.

Though eureka-style insights appear suddenly in your awareness, it's important to stress that they don't come into existence from nothing. They usually consist of new connections between things that you already know. Your ability to make new connections is limited - or empowered - by the amount of knowledge you have. So if your goal is to be struck by new ideas, you first have to do the relevant homework in whatever field you hope to be innovative.

It's also worth noting that although creative insight and analytical thinking are distinct modes of thought, they complement each other. Some eureka moments present insights that are in need of more systematic elaboration before they can be implemented. It may take several insights, each followed by analytical work, to produce, refine and assemble all the ideas necessary to complete a complex project.

Likewise, you may want to start approaching a problem with analytic thinking and then, if you reach an impasse, take a break to do something less demanding. Recent research suggests that your mental work on the problem may continue unconsciously and later produce a eureka moment. Alternating between these modes of thought can be a powerful way to generate, critique and perfect your ideas, whether they pertain to an everyday problem or the next big thing.

With respect to Mr Zuckerberg (whose speech was otherwise uplifting and laudable), the idea of the eureka moment isn't oppressive. It's liberating. To know that a great idea can pop into your head at any moment is a thrilling - and in the face of frustration, sustaining - thought.

Write that on glass or chisel it in stone. Better yet, post it on Facebook.

NYTIMES

• The writer is a professor of psychology at Drexel University and an author of The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, And The Brain.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 25, 2017, with the headline 'Yes, that eureka moment hits like a bolt from the blue'. Print Edition | Subscribe