The Meaning (and Science) Behind Those Life-Changing, Transformational Aha Moments
You can’t will yourself to a breakthrough insight. But by following a hunch, you can absolutely improve your odds.
Simon Lovell was 31 and a professional con man who had spun the gambling tricks he’d learned from his grandfather into a lucrative business fleecing strangers. Without hesitation or remorse, he left his marks broken in hotels all over the world. Nothing suggested that this day in 1988 would be any different.
Lovell was in Europe when he spotted his next victim in a bar, plied him with drinks, and drew him into a “cross”—a classic con in which the victim is made to believe he or she is part of a foolproof get-rich scheme. The con went perfectly. “I took him for an extremely large amount of money,” Lovell says.
After he was done, Lovell hustled the drunk man out of the hotel room where the fleecing had occurred, intending to leave him in the hallway for security to deal with. But then something unexpected happened. The mark went to pieces. “I’d never seen a man break down that badly, ever,” Lovell recalls. “He was just sliding down the wall, weeping and wailing.”
What followed was a moment Lovell would look back on as the hinge point of his life. “It was as if a light suddenly went on. I thought, This. Is. Really. Bad. For the first time, I actually felt sorry for someone.”
Lovell’s next move was hard for even him to believe. He returned the guy’s money and declared himself done with the swindler’s life. “There was an absolute epiphany that I just couldn’t do it anymore,” he says.
The next day, he felt different. Lighter. “I had become,” he says, “a real human being again.” He never ran another con.
In the decades that followed, Lovell turned his gift for smooth patter and sleight of hand into a successful one-man show that ran off-Broadway for eight years. After he suffered a stroke, good wishes and cash donations for his care poured in from friends and fellow magicians. In his professional world and well beyond it, Lovell had become respected, even beloved. His rehabilitation was complete.
That moment in the hotel had been Lovell’s wake-up call. But what is a wake-up call—or, if you’d rather, an epiphany or an aha moment? What could possibly explain an event so unexpected, forceful, and transformative that it cleaves a life into two parts: before and after?
Most of the time, ideas develop from the steady percolation and evaluation of thoughts and feelings. But every so often, if you’re lucky, a blockbuster notion breaks through in a flash of insight that’s as unexpected as it is blazingly clear. These revelations can be deeply personal, even existential, prompting the realization that you should quit your job, move to another city, , or mend a broken relationship. They can also be creative, generating a brilliant start-up idea, the perfect plot point of a novel, or the answer to an engineering quandary. In all cases, you apprehend something that you were blind to before.
The early-20th-century psychologist William James described such moments of clarity, in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience, as snap resolutions of the “divided self.” It’s as if a whole lifetime’s worth of growth is compressed into a single instant as dense as a collapsed star.
That’s how it felt to Leroy Schulz. Driving home from a wedding in Canada late one night, Schulz glimpsed a ghostly form surging from the highway median toward his headlights. He didn’t have time to brake. He barely had time to turn his face away from the flying glass as the moose’s head hit the windshield.
“Had I been a half-second slower, the whole mass of it would have come into the car,” Schulz says. “I have no doubt I’d have been decapitated.”
Several motorists who’d witnessed the crash approached the wreckin shock. “I can’t believe you’re alive,” one gasped. There was no life-changing epiphany at that precise moment or in the immediate aftermath. But Schulz’s near-fatal experience seeded something, and what followed weeks later “was one of those panoramic moments when you get your bearings and decide whether you’re on the right path or not,” he says.
Schulz thought, What advice would the 90-year-old me give to the me of right now? He was a technology consultant who dabbled in photography. “I said to myself that if I don’t take the path of being a full-time photographer, I will regret it,” he recalls.
So he went for it. His background interest elbowed its way to the front, and he became a successful portrait and commercial photographer. (These 15 stories prove that it’s never too late to change your life.)
“I’ve often wondered, If I hadn’t hit the moose, would I be a full-time photographer right now?” he reflects. “I don’t think so.” Schulz believes that the collision changed his biochemistry, unlocking something in his brain that prompted his shift in perspective.
William Miller, PhD, an emeritus professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of New Mexico, interviewed people who had experienced sudden realizations that led to life transformations. Most of the triggers were not so dramatic, he reported in his coauthored book Quantum Change. People experienced moments of sudden realizations and life transformations while walking to a nightclub, cleaning a toilet, watching TV, lying in bed, and preparing to shower.
They reported a striking similarity, however, in how the moments felt: more like a message revealed to them from outside than something their own minds had ginned up. It felt foreign, mystical even. Which may explain why so many historical accounts of revelations have been interpreted as communications from the divine. In more recent years, studies of the neuroscience of insight have begun to give us clues to what they really are.
In 2003, Mark Beeman, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist, presented people with a series of brainteasers in his lab at Northwestern University. The test he used, called the “remote associates test,” is designed to produce leaps of thought. It asks subjects to provide the missing link among three seemingly unrelated words—say, pine, sauce, and tree. (People sometimes exclaim “Aha!” when the word apple pops to mind.)
The subjects were also wired to machines that captured their brains’ electrical activity. “A second and a half or two seconds before the conscious insight, we see this burst of activity over the back of the brain,” Beeman says. The brain, he thinks, “is blocking visual input, which helps allow weaker information to compete for attention.” When a thought entered the subjects’ consciousness—aha!—the neocortex, the part of the brain associated with sight and hearing, lit up like a Christmas tree. The conscious brain takes credit, one could say, for the heavy lifting done behind the scenes.
The brain in “idle,” it turns out, can be far more active than the brain focused on completing a task. This was the 2001 discovery of Washington University neuroscientist Marcus Raichle, MD, who, in observing the resting brain, saw that there was essentially a party going on in the dark. The default mode network, as Dr. Raichle came to call it, is crackling with activity, burning perhaps 20 times the metabolic resources of the conscious brain. So the brain’s resting-state circuitry—which is turned on, paradoxically, when you stop focusing on a problem and just veg out—is very likely the best place to park a problem, for it employs the best, wisest, and most creative (though not necessarily fastest-working) mechanics.
Unfortunately, the unfocused brain, while a great tool where genuine solutions lurk, is frustratingly beyond our control. Is it possible to jump cognitive tracks to that place if you’re struggling with a thorny problem? Instead of spending time on a mountaintop incubating a solution, could you instead consciously keep doggedly trying things?
This deliberate mode of attack is the one we typically try first. There are many small contradictions hidden in any big problem: When you identify them and follow a set of rules to resolve them, as a computer program might, that gives you a critical leg up. If A dead-ends, then go to B.
But truly novel solutions are hardly ever discovered that purposefully. If a searched-for solution is outside our familiar experience—which is shaped by beliefs, culture, and biases—the conscious mind will likely never find it. A deliberate approach can search the whole box but not outside it.
Indeed, research suggests that thinking about a problem too methodically is often an impediment to solving it because we actually block potential solutions from floating into consciousness, a phenomenon known as cognitive inhibition. As University of California, Santa Barbara, neuroscientist Jonathan Schooler, PhD, discovered, if you ask people to articulate an idea they’re just hatching, the idea—zoop!—vanishes.
“It’s a bit like trying to look at a dim star,” Beeman says. “You have to turn your head and spy it out of the corner of your eye; if you look at it directly, it disappears.” In lab experiments, subjects who are given a brainteaser and sleep on the problem or otherwise back away from it are usually more likely to solve it than if they just keep pounding away.
But here’s the other side: Incubating a conundrum isn’t enough on its own. A puzzle will never be solvable if you don’t have all the pieces. The moment when the ancient Greek scholar Archimedes is said to have uttered the original “Eureka!” (“I have found it!” in Greek) came only after many weeks of cogitating. He had been charged with proving that a crown presented to the king was not solid gold, as the goldsmith claimed. But the solution eluded him until he stepped into the bathtub and his body weight caused some water to spill over the sides. In that moment, he had his method for proving that the crown was fake: a way of measuring the volume of an object based on its buoyancy. That method became the Archimedes principle. It explains how ships float and submarines dive and is still used today to calculate the volume of irregular objects.
“You accumulate all this experience and background,” Dr. Raichle says, “and then all of a sudden, there’s an association that your brain has rather cleverly pulled off.” He isn’t speaking just theoretically; it happened to him. In 2001, Dr. Raichle was walking from his office to a nearby conference room to meet with colleagues after their paper had been rejected for publication. Suddenly, he cracked the nut. He knew how to explain how the resting brain could be active without having been deliberately activated. He had, you might say, an aha about ahas.
“Ten years’ worth of work on activation was suddenly relevant to solving the default mode problem,” Dr. Raichle says. The leap would amount to the biggest breakthrough of his career—his paper on the default mode has been cited more than 8,500 times. It’s an affirmation of Louis Pasteur’s famous line: “Chance favors the prepared mind.”
There is one more thing that is important to keep in mind (so to speak) as you approach the task of cultivating an aha: Timing is critical. If we stay in the deliberate mode too long, we can drive the solution away. But if we back off a problem too soon, before we have all the puzzle pieces, we prevent the solution from coalescing. The key may be knowing when to zoom in tight on a problem and when to pull back so that we don’t crush the tender shoot of an insight just as it’s emerging.
“I think that part of the formula is the tension between the two modes, this back-and-forth between being very focused and not,” Beeman says. Drawing back from the problem puts us in a position to boost the underlying signal of the hunch that’s quietly developing so that it penetrates the conscious mind. You might call this training our intuition.
Known as a somatic marker, a hunch is “a physiological clue to what to do next,” as University of Southern California neurobiologist Antonio Damasio, MD, PhD, has put it. We ignore gut instinct at our peril, for it’s the product of evolutionary hard wiring. Like budding thoughts, budding feelings are evaluated based on their biological significance. Only the fittest are selected to reach consciousness. Strong emotions create loud signals. They tell the brain, There’s something important here—you’d better put some horses on this.
A hunch, then, is a kind of pre-aha. If intuition is indeed a trainable faculty, then it would seem to involve sharpening our emotional sensitivity. Get good at the care and feeding of hunches, and we might prime ourselves for insight.
This may be what prompted one woman’s epiphany when she stumbled upon a Facebook photo of a couple she barely knew. Something about the way the happy duo looked, the way they just fit together, hit her like a gut punch and put her own marriage in perspective. The woman, who prefers to remain anonymous, called a friend and blurted, “I think I married the wrong person.”
She had always prided herself on her hyperrationality; indeed, she had functioned “almost like the producer in my own marriage,” pencil poised to tick off everything that needed to be done: get settled, get pregnant, build a life. “But something about the photo triggered what I think of as the right brain,” she says. “It was like, Oh. My. God.”
At the time, the woman was taking classes in a particularly intense form of emotion-based acting, and as a result, she had cracked open a lot of bottled-up feelings. From the moment she started applying those lessons on the stage, she says, “I felt a door just open wide. It was the door—there’s no other way to put it—to truth.”
Over the following months, her rational mind accepted the insight that had hit her in a flash. She committed herself to living more authentically. That did lead to a divorce. As it turned out, she—like Simon Lovell and countless others who have experienced aha moments—changed her life forever.
Indeed, when professor William Miller’s coauthor, Janet C’de Baca, PhD, followed up a decade later with the people they’d studied, not a single one had returned to the pre-epiphany life. “The moment it happened, they knew they had gone through a one-way door—there was no going back,” says Miller. Perhaps that’s because there is often a moral dimension to stories of quantum change. In short, people’s values changed.
Miller likes to recount a case study of a fiercely addicted smoker who pulled up to a public library one day to pick up his kids. He rummaged in the glove compartment and looked under the seats for his cigarettes but couldn’t find them. It was starting to rain. The kids would be out in a second. But wait—there was a store not far away. He could zip over there and be back in just a few minutes. It wasn’t raining hard. The kids wouldn’t get too wet.
Then something shifted in this man. He thought, Dear heaven, I am the kind of father who would let his kids stand in the rain while he chased a drug. “And that was it,” Miller says. “He never smoked again.”