The stories of famous ‘aha moments,’ are awe-inspiring…
Legend has it, Percy Spencer invented the microwave after a candy bar melted in his pocket while he was fixing a radar; Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity after watching an apple fall from a tree, and Albert Einstein finally grasped special relativity after glancing at Bern’s famous clock tower on his way home from work.
How lucky and supremely intelligent these individuals must have been to stumble onto such great ideas in a single instant.
Or so we’ve been taught to think.
The truth is the ‘aha moment’ is one of the most misunderstood concepts in psychology.
On the surface an ‘aha moment’ seems like a gift from God — a lightning strike of creativity from the heavens.
In reality, there’s a 5 step process that all great creators go through before they get their best insights.
In this article, you’ll learn how creative insight takes place, and how to apply the 5 step process to your own domain.
And as always, we’ll be drawing on examples from the creative processes of four masters: Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci, screenwriter Woody Allen, Avatar director James Cameron, Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin.
The Neurology of Creative Insight
The brain, as many of us know, is split up into two main hemispheres: the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere. Each hemisphere controls the opposite side of the body.
Even though both hemispheres are constantly interacting with one another in a complex neural dialogue, as a rule of thumb — the left hemisphere is where logic and language occurs, and the right is where creativity, empathy and as it happens, ‘aha moments’ take place.
We know this because in MRI scanners, when observing someone experiencing a flash of creative insight, the left hemisphere doesn’t really react but the right side does. Specifically, a part called the anterior superior temporal gyrus (geek speak).
Moreover, in the real world, when hints or clues about solving a problem are shown to the left visual field (right hemisphere) people are much more likely to solve it.
The left hemisphere generally has shorter dendrites (neuron branches), allowing information to be retrieved quickly from local sources. The right hemisphere on the other hand has longer dendrites allowing information to be drawn from a more varied and larger source.
From the outside creativity and intelligence seem at odds. Creativity, neurologically speaking, is slow meandering, abstract and divergent. Intelligence is short and fast.
But this is the way it has to be because slower nerve impulses that retrieve a more varied source of information create a longer distance for the nerve impulse to travel and a greater likelihood that two seemingly unrelated ideas will bang up against each other and create the ‘aha moment’.
What does this mean?
Well, if you think of yourself as a mumbling, absent-minded slowpoke, that might not be a bad thing. It might just be an unfortunate side effect of your creative genius. (Einstein couldn’t speak until he was five and was famous for his forgetfulness.)
That said, even if you are right brain dominant, or absent minded, that’s not enough. If you look through the biographies of master creators, they all invariably follow the 5 step ‘aha process’ before they start getting their best insights.
The 5 Step ‘Aha Moment’ Process
Malcolm Gladwell in his outstanding book Outliers, popularized the notion that to begin pushing the envelope in a particular domain, roughly 10,000 hours or 10 years of immersive practice are required.
If you thought the 5 step ‘aha moment’ process was going to be a quick fix, I’m sorry to disappoint.
‘Aha moments’ and fresh creative ideas, as we’ve seen, are the result of multiple pre-existing ideas colliding with one another. Without immersion, we can’t play skittles.
Let’s take a quick look at the immersions of four master creators:
1. Leonardo da Vinci spent over 10 years of immersion as an apprentice at Andrea del Verrocchio’s studio, which he joined at roughly the age of 14 years old (more about his apprenticeship here).
However, he didn’t produce what scholars class as his first true Leonardian painting, away from the shadow of his master, until he was 30 years old.
And it was a good while longer before he began his most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, with it’s smoky sfumato effect in 1503. He was 51.
2. George R. R. Martin didn’t begin writing his epic masterwork – Game of Thrones – until 1991. He was 43 years old. But in reality, he was preparing for it his entire life. In a recent HBO interview he said:
I’ve always made up stories. I’ve found notebooks that I had since I was a kid. I can’t be more than five or six, and I’m drawing pictures of the planets and writing ‘Mars’ then all the descriptions of all the people who live on Mars, and made up planets.
A published author long before Game of Thrones came about, Martin also collected immense library shelves full of medieval history and fantasy. He’s a textbook example of immersion and seems to have had an endless succession of ‘aha moments’ since his first in 1991 (more on this later).
3. Woody Allen at the age of 15 began writing 50 jokes a day for the local newspaper. According to Allen, “This was not hard.” It was just something he could do and very soon he became so successful he was bringing home more money than both his parents combined.
Even though Allen has worked practically every day since, it took another 19 years before he wrote and directed his first feature film Take the Money and Run (1969).
But it wasn’t until 1977, when Allen really pushed the envelope of filmmaking and invented what many critics believe to be the first ever rom-com: Annie Hall.
4. Visionary director James Cameron’s trips to school, as a child, lasted one hour each way. During these long journeys he would read every science fiction book he could get his hands on.
When he wasn’t reading, he was drawing his own comics and nurturing his curiosity to explore by visiting the local Canadian woods.
As he grew older he continued to seek new worlds, above and below land, practice his art and continue his love affair with the futuristic technology he read about as a child. After working odd jobs as a mechanic, truck driver and art director he got his first major ‘aha moment’ with Terminator in 1984. He was 29 years old.
His true masterwork, Avatar, which combines everything Cameron immersed himself in growing up, however, came in 2009. He was 54 years old. It went on to become the highest grossing film of all time.
Average immersion before first major “aha moment”: 16.25 years
Average age of author at time of starting masterwork: 47.5 years
Have you ever been in conversation, and suddenly lost your train of thought?
You try to remember what you were going to say next, but to no avail?
When this happens the worst thing you can do is ‘try’ and remember what you were going to say. If you just change the subject, more often than not, it will naturally come back to mind.
‘Aha moments’ are very similar. In order for our minds to make connections, they need idle time. You can’t force it.
It is no coincidence that many of our great ideas come when we’re in the shower, walking or driving a car mindlessly.
The idea that creative geniuses are constantly working, multitasking and going without sleep is false. Sure, if you look at people like Thomas Edison, on the surface, it seems like their work ethic and creativity are superhuman, and they were. But if you dig a little deeper you’ll discover that he was an expert power-napper. He could nap anywhere, anytime, and he did.
In the same way that bodybuilders need rest to grow, our minds need rest, idle time and sleep to assimilate new ideas.
Here are four examples of incubation at work…
1. If you read Leonardo da Vinci’s wiki page, in the first paragraph we read about the Leonardo we know, “His mind and personality seem to us superhuman.”
In the next paragraph, however, we read,”Perhaps fifteen of his paintings have survived, the small number because of his constant, and frequently disastrous, experimentation with new techniques, and his chronic procrastination.”
How could someone so productive and creative be a chronic procrastinator?
At first these two notions seem at odds, but from what we now know about creativity, perhaps Leonardo’s ability to think up ‘new techniques’ came as a byproduct of his chronic procrastination.
On one hand, procrastination can be a horrible affliction, a pathological laziness. On the other, it can provide the perfect amount of incubation for those big ideas.
One of Leonardo’s favorite techniques for “arousing the mind to various inventions” was staring at walls of spotted stains and letting his mind wander.
2. George R. R. Martin spends a heck of a lot of time at his DOS computer writing Game of Thrones (roughly 5 years per book). While sitting down and simply doing the work is one of the best ways of overcoming creative difficulties, Martin doesn’t get all of his ideas at his desk.
In a Rolling Stone interview he explains how he came up with his idea for The Wall in Game of Thrones:
I was in England visiting a friend, and as we approached the border of England and Scotland, we stopped to see Hadrian’s Wall. I stood up there and I tried to imagine what it was like to be a Roman legionary, standing on this wall, looking at these distant hills. It was a very profound feeling.
George combines his historical knowledge (immersion) with an idle tourist trip (incubation) and aha, he’s got an idea he still remembers 10 years later.
3. Woody Allen, although writing and directing one film per year since his directorial debut, does a lot of incubating. He plays saxophone in a jazz band once a week, takes regular walks, and sometimes cuts his filmmaking schedule short to catch the baseball game.
He balances immersion and incubation perfectly, and as a result, never runs out of ideas. Here’s an image of his recorded ‘aha moments’, or as Allen describes “all kinds of scraps and things that are written on hotel things.”
4. James Cameron’s curiosity, as we’ve seen, is boundless and his attention to detail legendary. He has his immersion down. But where does such a driven individual find time for incubation to dream up such an idea as ambitious as Avatar?
In a recent interview for Visionaries, Cameron was happy to share:
A lot of stuff comes to me in dreams and I remember it. Sometimes I write it down — sometimes it’s an image — and I’ll go draw or paint that image. I remember it — waking up from a dream in college – and I remember this very clearly having leafed through a book of paintings and waking up and saying “Wow, I wish I could paint like that,” and saying ‘Wait a minute, dummy, you just painted all those paintings in your head. Now paint them for real. And I quickly painted as many of them as I could remember.
Procrastination, sleeping, and taking time out with friends take us away from the immersion that is so needed for the creation of great art. But not doing any of these things stifles our ability to get that big ‘aha moment.’
We need to find a balance between the two. Taking rests, on the micro, mezzo and macro levels improve our mood, motivation and creativity.
Work hard, play hard. Repeat.
3. The “Aha Moment”
In a lot of ways the “aha moment” is the least important step because it’s the most incidental. You can’t control it.
If you immerse yourself in theory and practice while providing ample incubation for your mind to make connections, you’ll get creative insights.
The 5 neurological steps of creative insight:
- A problem that logic can’t solve.
- In your unconscious mind an insight is stirring.
- Suddenly a blast of alpha waves, your brain ‘blinks.’
- Seconds later a burst of Gamma waves.
- This is what you experience as insight.
There are no shortcuts; there are no quick fixes.
Although we’ve covered some of the ‘aha moments’ of our chosen creators, George R. R. Martin relates the ‘aha moment’ which created the seed that eventually became Game of Thrones:
It was the summer of 1991. I was still involved in Hollywood. My agent was trying to get me meetings to pitch my ideas, but I didn’t have anything to do in May and June. It had been years since I wrote a novel. I had an idea for a science-fiction novel called Avalon. I started work on it and it was going pretty good, when suddenly it just came to me, this scene, from what would ultimately be the first chapter of A Game of Thrones. It’s from Bran’s viewpoint; they see a man beheaded and they find some direwolf pups in the snow. It just came to me so strongly and vividly that I knew I had to write it. I sat down to write, and in, like, three days it just came right out of me, almost in the form you’ve read.
It just comes to him effortlessly.
We’ve covered three out of the five steps yet we’ve already passed the ‘aha moment’.
How can there be two steps remaining?
Simply put: a few dire wolf pups in the snow isn’t Game of Thrones.
If you’ve spent sufficient time in immersion and given your ideas some incubation to connect, the chances are, you won’t just get one big ‘aha moment’ — you’ll get thousands.
But not every ‘aha moment’ will stand up to reality. Some will subjectively feel like good ideas, but really, they aren’t.
We need to ask ourselves:
Is this really, genuinely, honestly, truly a good idea?
When Leonardo da Vinci died, they found over 30,000 pages of notebooks in his room. He carried a notebook with him everywhere he went, from the age of 30 up until his death [this is a great way of capturing insights during incubation].
I’m sure Leonardo had more ‘aha moments’ than hours in the day. But not all ‘aha moments’ are created equally.
Not every Einstein insight changed the way we see physics.
We must be objective with our ‘aha moments’ and only pursue the ones worth pursuing.
George R. R. Martin, in a Rolling Stone interview, when asked about creative inspiration said:
Ideas are cheap. I have more ideas now than I could ever write up.
“Aha moments” by themselves are, like Martin says, a dime a dozen. Many of the best bands in the world write hundreds of songs for every album and then whittle them down into the best ten for release.
This is purpose of deliberation.
On average we dream 5-7 dreams night. At time of writing this article, James Cameron is 60 and would have dreamt somewhere in the region of 131,400 dreams. He’s written and directed 7 feature films.
Has he only had 7 dreams with an ‘aha moment’? Unlikely.
Has he only had 7 dreams worth a $200 million film budget? That’s deliberation.
Woody Allen’s brain is an idea factory. But no great artist escapes the 5 step “aha moment” process and Allen deliberates like anyone else:
Every time I start a project I sit here like this, and I look [though my ideas] and I’ll spend and hour thinking of that [story idea] and it’ll go no place and then I’ll go on to the next one.
We’ve immersed, we’ve incubated, we’ve had our insights and we’ve deliberated. But this is still not enough. As long as an idea remains in our head, unpacked, it will never be more than a seed.
Lao Tzu said, “To see greatness in the seed; that is genius.”
I don’t disagree, but to not then plant and water that seed, well, that is moronic.
Ideas, ultimately, can only be judged by how well they’re communicated.
When I started writing this article I thought the ideas were pretty good, but have I communicated them well to you?
If you have a great movie concept but you can’t pitch your story, you’ll never get a deal.
If you have amazing literary characters in your head like Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones, but you can’t sit down and hammer it out for 5 years like George R. R. Martin, don’t expect a TV show.
Elaboration is the final step in the 5 step ‘aha moment’ process, and arguably the most important.
Elaboration makes your ‘aha moment’ real.
Mediocre ideas executed superbly will always beat a superb idea executed poorly.
Some people find the ‘aha moment’ easy but struggle with the elaboration. Film director Ingmar Bergman fits into this category. He says:
The writing of a script is a difficult period but a useful one, for it compels me to prove logically the validity of my ideas.
Woody Allen on the other hand is the opposite:
To me, the torture is getting the idea, working the idea out — its general plot, structure and story, but once I know that, I can write a screenplay in two, three weeks. It’s the difference between writing it and writing it down. It becomes pleasurable for me and flows easily because I’ve done all the spade work beforehand.
Sometimes elaboration and deliberation are closely related. James Cameron wrote his first treatment of Avatar in 1995, but decided not to elaborate it further because the technology wasn’t available to realize his dream.
This is quite a rare reason not to elaborate your ideas, but you might have a business idea without the funding or something of the like. The interplay between deliberation and elaboration is subtle, but it certainly exists.
This article is based around the ‘aha moment’ but really is about creating art in general.
If you value creativity but you don’t engage in these 5 steps, why not? Are you a regular reader? Do you take walks? Do you sleep enough? Do you elaborate your ideas every day to make them real?
These are not optional steps in the creation of great art, they’re mandatory.
The 5 Step ‘Aha Moment’ Process Summed Up:
- Immersion – learn, study and practice your domain as much as possible.
- Incubation – take breaks, have recreational time, find a balance between work and play.
- ‘Aha Moment’ – a natural by product of first two steps.
- Deliberation – be honest about your ideas. Keep the good ones, ditch the bad ones.
- Elaboration – get to work and make your ideas a reality. This is the most important step.