Aha! Dissecting the Eureka Moment

Fagjun | Published 2017-04-20 04:37

"My moment of realization trumps the need for clothes." -Archimedes, probably

A eureka moment is a moment of sudden understanding and insight. New research has dissected what exactly happens to us as we come to a sudden realization.

Legend has it that a king once asked the ancient Greek philosopher and polymath Archimedes to solve a certain problem. Archimedes ruminated on the problem while soaking in a bath. When he figured out the solution, he leaped out of the tub and ran back home naked while shouting “eureka”, which means “I've got it”.

Thus, the eureka moment was born.

The story about Archimedes has been proven to be untrue, though it certainly does capture the what the moment of realization is like. Most people probably won't run naked through the street out of excitement, but the essence is there.

Analyzing the Eureka Moment

59 participants in the study played a computer against an invisible opponent. The participants were presented with 11 numbers, from zero to 10, arranged clockwise in ascending order on a computer screen. The details on how to win the game are somewhat complex, but players had to pick a number and wait for their opponent to pick their own number choice. Basically, winning the game entailed strategizing and choosing a number lower than the number the opponent chose.

Thus, consistently picking zero was the way to go. 42% of participants realized that playing zero will lead to success. 37% committed to playing a number other than zero, which meant that they didn't really learn what the best strategy was. 20%, meanwhile, didn't stick to playing just one number.

The researchers wanted to be able to tell when the participants had a eureka moment. Basically, they wanted to catch exact moment when the participants realized what they had to do to win. To do this, they placed an eye tracker below the computer screen to track the movements of the participants' eyes.

Epiphany Learning

The moment of realization
[Photo by Ben White]

With the eye tracker, the researchers were able to tell when the participants were about to have a eureka moment. The eye tracker showed the researchers that participants began looking at lower numbers in the moments leading up to their epiphany.

This eureka moment is the culmination of a buildup of information and strategic thinking. Researchers call this “epiphany learning”. Researchers found that the 49% who won the game paid less attention to the numbers their opponents played. Instead, they paid more attention to the results of each match—whether they won or lost.

"We don't see the epiphany in their choice of numbers, but we see it in their eyes," says James Wei Chen, one of the researchers. The dilation of the pupils also indicated whether or not the participants were learning. Significantly dilated pupils meant that the participant was engaging in epiphany learning.

Thus, participants who were successful at the game were already building up to their eureka moment even before they knew it. According to the researchers, these participants managed to win because they paid attention to the right thing. If there's a lesson we can take away from the study, it's to pay less attention to others and more attention to the problem at hand.

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