Aha! moments linked to dopamine-producing regions in the brain

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Brain regions which make dopamine, a chemical released during sex, eating and monetary reward, have been linked to the ‘Aha! moment’ of sudden clarity during problem solving.

The researchers found a lightbulb moment sees dopamine 'factories' in the brain light up

A lightbulb moment sees dopamine 'factories' in the brain light up

A team including researchers from Goldsmiths, University of London used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to study what happened deep in the brain when people tackled word puzzles that required a ‘leap’ of creative insight to solve.

The researchers found that when people solved puzzles with Aha! a deeper part of the brain that generates the mood-enhancing chemical dopamine ‘lit up’. They identified the nucleus accumbens as a critical hub linked to this lightbulb moment. The link could help to explain the ecstatic joy that accompanies creative problem solving – exemplified by the story of Archimedes leaping out of his bath and shouting “Eureka!” (“I have found it!”).

A report of the research, carried out by scientists from Goldsmiths led by Professor Joydeep Bhattacharya and scientists from Medical University of Vienna led by Professor Christian Windischberger, is published in the journal Human Brain Mapping.

Professor Bhattacharya said: “By using the state-of-the art functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging we were able to peer deep into the brain and study in detail which areas are active during creative problem solving.

“For the first time we have shown that the hub of the brain’s reward system, the nucleus accumbens, ‘lit up’ with increased activation both when problems were solved and when people reported a strong Aha! experience. The nucleus accumbens is part of a network activated when we experience a pleasure or reward, and dopamine facilitates communication between this network with other brain regions involved with critical functions like emotion, memory and attention. These findings may reflect the sudden ‘jump’ to a solution accompanied by a moment of intense relief, ease, or joy.”

The study involved 30 human adult volunteers who were scanned at the Medical University of Vienna. They were asked to solve verbal puzzles such as find a word that is associated with three words (for example ‘stick’, ‘reading’, ‘service’, with the solution word that can be linked to all of them: ‘lip’). Inside the scanner, the participants solved 48 such puzzles, and pressed a button as soon as they felt confident about their solution. The participants were asked to report their Aha! experience after each solution.

Professor Bhattacharya said: “Dopamine is a chemical not just for processing reward, it also stimulates goal-driven approach motivation such as curiosity and learning: these findings establish a close link between dopamine, positive mood and creativity. Further, 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. So an Aha! moment is more than just a sensation of pleasure or relief, instead it is a special form of fast retrieval, combination, and encoding process and this is something we hope to investigate in future research.”

A report of the research, entitled ‘Ultrahigh field fMRI insights on insight: Neural correlates of the Aha! moment’, is published in the journal Human Brain Mapping. 

The research was funded by the European Commission.

Image: Sunset in a Lightbulb by David Geitgey Sierralupe