There’s little more satisfying than that feeling you get when the penny finally drops. That glistening, pristine moment of insight. Finally, neuroscientists have tracked down its home in our brains.
Puzzles are popular worldwide; they have kept humanity entertained for thousands of years.
The universal love felt toward challenges of this type has little to do with the process of solving the puzzle. Instead, it has everything to do with that awesome sense of joy as everything clicks into place.
Of course, as we evolved as a species, being able to solve puzzles was less about passing the time in a boring meeting and more about finding innovative ways to survive.
Because problem-solving has kept our kind alive for so long, finding a solution is linked to a deep — if brief — feeling of euphoria.
Problem-solving taps into a similar mechanism as eating and mating; animals most driven to do these things are more likely to survive and procreate. An early human who fails to eat, mate, or solve problems is unlikely to pass their genes on.
Researchers at MedUni Vienna’s Center for Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering in Austria recently joined up with Goldsmiths University London, in the United Kingdom, to investigate this phenomenon.
They wanted to understand more about this mysterious, ubiquitous ‘Aha!’ sensation. Their findings were published in the journal Human Brain Mapping.
The study used 30 participants, and each was asked to solve word puzzles while their brains were scanned. They were presented with three words and were required to come up with the word that linked them together.
As an example, if they were shown the words “house,” “bark,” and “apple,” their answer should be “tree.”
In all, the participants completed 48 puzzles. Each time they came up with the correct answer, they pressed a button to signal to the researchers that they had experienced the “Aha!” moment.
Lead investigator Christian Windischberger explains, “By using the very latest functional magnetic resonance imaging at ultra-high field, we are able to look deep into the brain and to carry out a detailed investigation to ascertain which areas are active during problem-solving.”
They found that the rush of excitement that came with the moment of insight was produced by an influx of dopamine into a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens.
The nucleus accumbens was active throughout the process of problem-solving, but particularly so at the moment of insight. This part of the brain, in the basal forebrain, is part of the dopamine network that is triggered when we receive a reward.
Dopamine signals to the rest of the brain information about emotion, memory processes, and levels of alertness. As Windischberger explains:
“Apart from activation of areas of alertness, language processing, and memory, our research results showed sudden and significantly greater activation of the nucleus accumbens when the solving of a puzzle is accompanied by an ‘Aha!’ moment and hence a moment of intense joy and relief.”
Dopamine is well known as a messenger involved with reward processes, such as food, money, and sex. However, in this study, the researchers showed that it was also important in keeping a puzzler motivated, producing “curiosity and a willingness to learn.”
“Our results indicate a close correlation between dopamine, exhilaration, and creativity.”
He continues, “Our results provide the neural mechanisms explaining why the solution with an accompanying ‘Aha!’ experience is more salient, facilitates long-term memory storage, and reinforcement.”
“An ‘Aha!’ moment is, therefore, more than just a simple feeling of joy or relief but is a special form of fast retrieval, combination, and encoding process,” adds Windischberger.
Because this area of study is relatively untouched, there are many more questions to be answered. The researchers hope to carry on their work and bring an even deeper insight into this fascinating and primal feeling.