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Leadership Today - Practical Tips For Leaders

Sep 11, 2020


Have you had an ‘aha’ moment lately? New research provides clues into why some of us find insights so addictive.



Hello and welcome to episode 94 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we tackle one of today’s biggest leadership challenges. This week we explore the power of insights, including what’s going on in our brain when we have them, and some practical ways to have even more insights.

There are few things in life better than an ‘aha’ moment - that point where you’ve been grappling with a problem and the solution just suddenly pops into your head. It can feel quite different to solving something by working away at it methodically. Ideas can come as a slow steady slog, but sometimes there are leaps. 

Researches earlier this year discovered that these sudden insights can, for some people, trigger the brain’s reward system. That an insight can activate the same areas that highly pleasurable activities and even addictive drugs work on.

To explore this, the researchers presented each person with a series of anagrams while using a high resolution EEG to monitor brain activity. Let’s say, for example, that you were presented with the letters ABSIS. Those letters could also make up the word BASIS. But how did you solve that? The participant would press a button to confirm whether it was an insight or more of an analytical process. So the word BASIS might just pop into your head, or you might mentally start shifting the letters around in a more analytical way.

Researchers can actually see the moment when the insight occurs as it is accompanied by a burst of gamma-band brainwaves right before the person indicates that they have had an insight solution. So what did they discover? Not surprisingly, they found that insight solutions were faster than analytical solutions. Insights pop into our head much faster than our ability to consciously think through potential solutions. What is really interesting is that many people also showed a second burst in the orbitofrontal cortex - a region of the brain just above the orbits of your eyes, thus the name, which is associated with reward and pleasure. This reward burst occurs just a tenth of a second after the insight, so it is too quick to be the result of conscious thought. It turns out that for many people the insight itself is inherently pleasurable, rather than something that we decide should be pleasurable.

The researchers wanted to understand who is more likely to have this reward response, given that not everyone experiences it. To do this they had participants complete a questionnaire on reward sensitivity - the extent to which people were driven more by gaining rewards than the fear of loss. They found that those more focused on gain rather than loss were also more likely to experience a natural reward response when they had an insight. It’s easy to see how that might lead people to spend more time chasing that reward, therefore investing more effort into creativity and insight generation.

So what does this mean for me as a leader? Well, let’s assume you don’t have a high resolution EEG lying around the house. Although I will point out that EEG units that hook up to your phone are becoming far more accurate and affordable if you did want to strap one onto the old melon to take a look under the hood. If that’s not an option, here are some other suggestions:

  1. Pose yourself problems to solve. This sounds kind of obvious, but if you don’t present your brain with a problem to solve in the first place, you’re not going to have an insight.

  2. Keep positive. Researchers found those in a positive mood solved more problems via insight than those with lower mood. There are lots of benefits to having a positive mood.

  3. Focus on what you have to gain rather than lose. That will encourage a more insight-based approach to problem solving.

  4. Aim for low attention moments. As we have discussed before, people never come up with their best ideas while sitting at their desk. Make the most of those low stress, relaxed moments. Sometimes I pose myself a problem before I go to bed or just before I go for a run. I then don’t try to actively solve the problem - I just let it sit. It’s amazing how many times I have an insight when I wake up, or when I’m cooling down after that run.

  5. Celebrate solving something hard. Even if it doesn’t get your reward circuit going in the moment, maybe that piece of chocolate a little later will.

If you did want to delve into the research further, I’ve provided a link in the episode notes although, full disclosure, it is a pretty dense bit of reading.

And let me know your insight stories - what works for you? You can make contact via the website. Have a great week.



Yongtaek Oh, Christine Chesebrough, Brian Erickson, Fengqing Zhang, John Kounios. An insight-related neural reward signalNeuroImage, 2020; 214: 116757 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2020.116757