In the last post, we explored how pieces of information are stored in groups of neurons. Recall that when thinking of an object, many different groups of neurons, forming a network, will be activated to give rise to all of the properties of that object. Groups of neurons that code for specific features like color may also code for the color of other objects. This is done to save the resources of the brain. In such a way, spontaneous new ideas emerge from the spreading activation of an associative knowledge-based network.
This explains well how the thought of a red apple might remind you of the red paint on a Ferrari. We will call this a deliberate insight. But what about those “Aha!” moments? Some mental associations seem to come from nowhere at all. Most of the time, these associations are dismissed because they do not seem to apply to anything in particular - in fact, you probably do not even notice them in the first place. But other bizarre associations become meaningful and can help to solve a problem even though you have no idea where they came from. We will call this a spontaneous insight.
The distinction between deliberate and spontaneous can be explained by looking at how consciousness works. Although incredibly difficult to define, we will say here that it is the total sum of thoughts represented in working memory at a given time.
If you put your hand on your forehead, research suggests that the part of your brain associated with working memory and the selection of mental elements to be represented in consciousness is directly beneath your fingers. Pretty amazing, but this is only part of the story. The rest can be explained by looking at the underlying modes of processing that the brain uses.
The thought of the red Ferrari that comes to mind after looking at the apple you hold in your hands is analogous to the deliberate mode of processing. This is a kind back and forth reworking of associations held in working memory (consciousness), which are attended to by the brains attentional network to arrive at an insight.
The other mode of processing is spontaneous. It works when the attentional system does not actively select the content of consciousness and thus allows some of the most bizarre but potentially useful associations to bubble up. This explains why “Aha!” moments usually occur when daydreaming, or performing mundane tasks.
If and when unlikely associations arrive into consciousness, they still have to be further processed, developed, and assessed for appropriateness and relevance within a persons perceived creative context.
Thus, if you are suddenly caught off guard thinking about a coffee cup with wheels attached to it while you are sitting in a cafe drinking a normal cup of coffee you will most likely dismiss it because it seems bizarre and irrelevant. However, that exact same thought about a coffee cup with wheels might seem more useful when you are sitting at your desk wanting a coffee, but your coffee machine is broken and the cafe is 5 blocks away.
Ambrose Soehn, Guest contributor