On October 16, 1843, while on a stroll along the Royal Canal in Dublin, mathematician William Rowan Hamilton had an aha moment which led to his famed discovery of the algebraic equations known as quaternions which is now etched on the bridge. Research shows that although creative insight and analytical thinking are distinct modes of thought, they do complement each other. These aha or eureka moments are typically considered the manifestation of creativity in a few creative geniuses; however, having access to one’s own creative process can be different for different people.
On this episode, professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Drexel University, Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and the Psychonomic Society, and international best-selling author, John Kounios, Ph.D., discusses the process and science of creative insight and analytical thinking that marks our discovery of a brilliant solution for small or big problems. We all need strong Executive Function mastery to counter the effects of a lack of insight and a lack of immersive experience into “problematic” components which can take away the focus needed for solving one’s own problems.
About John Kounios
John Kounios, PhD, is a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Drexel University. He has published cognitive neuroscience research on insight, creativity, problem solving, memory, and Alzheimer’s disease and coauthored (with Mark Beeman) the international Amazon Bestseller, The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain (Random House). John's research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation and has been reported by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Times (London), National Public Radio and was featured in BBC Television and Discovery Science Channel documentaries. His work was profiled by The New Yorker and The Saturday Evening Post and is part of a permanent exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. He is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and the Psychonomic Society.
About Host, Sucheta Kamath
Sucheta Kamath, is an award-winning speech-language pathologist, a TEDx speaker, a celebrated community leader, and the founder and CEO of ExQ®. As an EdTech entrepreneur, Sucheta has designed ExQ's personalized digital learning curriculum/tool that empowers middle and high school students to develop self-awareness and strategic thinking skills through the mastery of Executive Function and social-emotional competence.
Sucheta Kamath: Welcome to Full PreFrontal exposing the mysteries of executive function. As you know, we are always looking to find ways to improve our lives, gain better insight, and create a playbook that allows us to think about our thinking, feel our feelings more carefully, and reflect and see if there's any insights we can gain so that we can become better partners, better communicators, and better at leading a complex, multifaceted life. And as you know, executive function is also one of the ways we manage crises, it's one of the ways a language used to describe executive function is resilience because it is thinking about different ways of approaching life and problems during uncertainty ambiguity, around a small wrench, big wrench or complete, disastrous, unanticipated situation. Now, with that in mind, it's always very interesting to me about creativity, personal problem solving, and also finding joy in discovering a newer ways to think about life. And today, we have a very special guest who's kind of going to help us understand the mysteries and the joys of the aha moment, or the eureka moments. And to me, to be human is to be creative. It is solving everyday problems when you get locked out of your own house, for example, or you're trying to get your toddler to eat broccoli, or you're persuading somebody to look at your proposal and give you money, right. So all those things require some sort of navigating the unknown and the unseen. Having access to your own creative process can be different for different people. But ultimately, to me, while the brain is thinking and moving and turning, it needs to get to a place where it can connect ideas, parse through important information from the trivial one, so that it can envision a solution. For some, it's easy for some it's not and the kind of individuals and people I work with children and adults, they struggle in figuring out problems that they are encountering, and figuring out solutions for the problems that interfere with their own lives. So with that in mind, what is the role of this insight, this sudden insight that gives you get makes a close encounter with your creativity called the aha moment. So I also almost think about the aha moment as the most amazing way to see the truth. And there is some certain like, you know, I'm also very interested to see what our guest talks about, or sees about this. There's some joy, there's some incredible discovery, something you have never seen before. So with that, I am eager to welcome Dr. John Kounios. He is a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Drexel University. He has published cognitive neuroscience research on insight, creativity, problem solving memory, and Alzheimer's disease, and has co authored one of the most amazing books I'm gonna hold this for those who are watching us on YouTube. It's it's called the Eureka Factor: Aha moments, creative insight and the brain. John's research has been funded by National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, he has been reported and it's been reported in many, many highly revered publications, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, we will talk about one of his articles about, you know, Mark Zuckerberg, you know, an inspirational speech that he gave, which I think you wrote a little article about that as well. So lastly, He is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and the psychodynamic society. So, welcome to the podcast. How are you, John?
John Kounios: Fine, thank you and thanks, thanks for having me.
Sucheta Kamath: So, there there are so many things I want to talk to you about. So let me start with this first question. You know, when we think about Newton's apple or Archimedes bathtub, we think these moments of epiphany as clear mark in you know, culture, which kind of shows that somehow solutions come to people on a whim and fancy and they are like a spark going off. So is there a clear and and I think your research, of course shows that there is a clear consensus amongst researchers that there is there that aha moments are one manifestation of creativity. So what is an aha moment? And can we use the term Aha moment, insight, and epiphany interchangeably?
John Kounios: To the latter question, yes, there are all different terms that refer to the same thing. The term that psychological scientists have used for over a century is insight. And that corresponds to the aha moment, the eureka moment. Those are were popular terms. Epiphany, Revelation. The key factor in the definition is suddenness. So if you hear Oprah Winfrey talking about an aha moment, it's not necessarily the same thing we're talking about. The way some people use the term aha moment is any deep understanding about something. When psychological scientists talk about aha moments and insight, they're talking about understandings that come suddenly in an instant and a flash, from the one moment, you thinking a certain way. And then the very next moment, a completely different idea or solution perspective, whatever it might be just a different way of understanding things. And that suddenness is what is perhaps the defining feature of aha moments that distinguish it from other kinds of ideas or understandings that may evolve gradually over time.
Sucheta Kamath: One thing I was going to just quickly say, as you proceed, two things strike me about this. This is there's a slow brewing thought process that eventually becomes your belief system, versus this aha, which is a discovery. And second, I think there seems to be some cultural bias about we having or needing a ha moment, like as if that is a mark of smartness. Is there some, some truth to that people believing that as a CEO, I can think?
John Kounios: Well, first of all, in terms of cultural bias? I think you're right. And I think some researchers have shown that in the popular mind, there's an assumption that aha moments are, in some sense, better, more creative, more powerful. That's true for certain types of ideas. So for example, if I write down a list of numbers and ask you to add them up, you're not going to sit there and wait for the insert the answer to come to you in a flash of insight, it probably won't happen, right? For that, you need to use what we call analytical thinking, which is conscious, deliberate, slowly working in a step by step way, from beginning to the end, when you get the solution. Some types of problems are best solved in that incremental solution or incremental analytic fashion. Other types of problems are best solved with a flash of insight. So for example, the novelist Somerset mom made this point he there's a quote, I just love from him. He said, there are three rules for night writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are, right? There's no recipe that for some things, there is no recipe, there's no formula, there is no step by step process for certain types of problems. For other types of problems there is and you use that kind of analytical thinking, when it works best. Now, in our research, we focused on on puzzles that can be solved either way, you can look at an anagram or other kinds of puzzles we have. And you can either work it out in an analytic, deliberate fashion. Or you can have a flash of insight. And the reason we use those kinds of puzzles is that we can do brain imaging. And we can compare the the brain activity when you have a flash of insight to the brain activity when you solve the same kind of puzzle analytically. And that allows us to sort of say, well, these are the brain processes that lead to insight, these are the kinds that lead to an analytic solution. But in the real world, there are problems that you really can't solve in both ways. You have to sort of do it one way or the other. And guess I think you're right about cultural biases. I've noticed that in looking at international press coverage for our work, that for example, in India, they there's a lot of press coverage. They talk about a ha moments all the time in magazine and newspaper articles, haven't watched television, I don't know what they do and television shows in, in some countries, I don't see that kind of media coverage. The Japanese love aha moments. And I think that this is a a product of Zen Buddhism being in in their culture and this the idea of having these kinds of, of sudden insights in other countries, not so much.
Sucheta Kamath: So, you know, it's just a couple of thoughts about that. I think number one is the, the analytical thinking, to me is hard work. And hard work is invisible other than your just your nose to the ground grind. I think that you know, famous like Archimedes experiment where he steps out. And boy, he discovered this amazing truth about, you know, physics. But I really think the reason I feel it's very attractive because it the suddenness almost implies no effort. And suddenness implies that no conscious agency is needed for great ideas. And the second thing I will tell you is, you know, I had an amazing guest who talked about the, the storytelling animal within us. So you know, and and Jonathan Haidt's work, as you know, it's a, when we look back at our own processes, we come up with great stories to explain how fabulous we were and how easy things were. So one of the things I see that, you know, how I built this, for example, is a podcast that, you know, I think I know, that in which they interview these amazing a silicon find a founders, and the founder stories are told as if one day, boom, this idea came to me. So there's this narrative that all you are this close to discovering the a molecule, you know, so maybe there's some cultural pressure, that your fame and and freedom is accessible through this aha moment is my Oh, you know, colloquial analysis.
John Kounios: And then, but on the other hand, sometimes you find people denying the existence or importance of aha moments. I remember reading an article many years ago, where they interviewed great scientists who won various prizes. And they asked them, you know, how did you come to your ideas? Did you come to it through aha moments? Or was it something slower and more analytical? And most of them said, Oh, no, it wasn't aha moment. It was just years and years of difficult, detailed analytical work. And for some of them, that that may be true. But I also remember reading an article once in University of Michigan alumni magazine, I think it was where they were, they were talking, they were interviewing a scientist, and they asked him that question. So no, no, no, there no aha moments. It's very, you know, long, slow, hard, analytical work. And then later, in the same article, he was talking about how he took a shower and just had this sudden idea, it came to him and it changed his research. And he didn't even make that connection. How, you know, that, that he was just as proving his own point. So I think sometimes people like to attribute what they what they've done to an aha moment. Other times, they're kind of embarrassed almost that it was that easy. It's not really easy, but that, you know, it could change like that. And then they, they, they sort of, they focus on the years and years of toil in their history, which is, you know, that's appropriated, but then they don't want to make it sound like, you know, they flip the switch, and everything suddenly changed. Because that sounds easy. It's not easy. You have to do all the homework, you have to do, you know, gather the knowledge, you have to do the analytical thinking. And then eventually, you may or may not have an aha moment, that that solves everything that changes your whole perspective. So yeah, some people you know, they either like to save Muhammad or they want to sort of suppress that part of their history.
Sucheta Kamath: And I also I'm curious, I'm going to share a story. So beware, listeners if you have children, but this is a very interesting, no, no, it was a something, you know, when I was, I think 10-11, there was a movie that came out in India, it was a Bollywood movie, and it was, it was called Balika Vadhu. And it was, it was about a, you know, a story of coming of age. In India, a child, it was about a child marriage, when, you know, a girl probably would be 12 or 10. And the boy would be 12. They would get married and then they would go and live separately in their own parents, houses and then they would kind of finally begin to live as husband and wife and it was a I remember watching that movie and there was a so the movie begins by they get married and they have no idea that the, the girl is so little, she has no idea what marriage means, which is basically what the role of sex is and anyway, so she lives with her parents for four or five years and then she goes to a temple and this is, you know, the very, very ancient 1000s of years of stone temples and there's this carvings of you with Kamasutra image, images. And she is she sees that. And she this is like five minutes before the movie ends she has an epiphany or this aha moment like, oh, that's what a marriage is supposed to be. And then she, when she sees her husband. Anyway, I remember watching that movie, and I was young enough to not understand what her aha moment was. So it was a hilarious situation, as I look back when I was reading your material, that when you see that explicitly stated, clearly indicated, but not spoken. Aha moments, you have to decipher using your theory of mind, what are people thinking? What did they discover, which is never revealed? You know what I mean?
John Kounios: Actually, we can make a distinction here, between an aha moment, which is sort of solving a problem or come up with a new idea. And what friend of mine, Jonathan Schooler quotes in "a duh" moment where the internet is presented to you and you have this feeling of insight. But it's not that you figured it out, it's that someone presented the solution. And it takes some kind of very rapid or sudden change in the brain, for you to have that comprehension that what you're looking at is the solution. And that that's an example of an "a duh".
Sucheta Kamath: That's right, that's right. Oh, my God. And you know what, so again, another beautiful thing you kind of mentioned is, it is truly about understanding, a revelation about the way either world operates, or the way work could be operated. And somehow you were holding a bunch of keys and one key you didn't know where it fits, and you said, Oh, that's the door for this, for which this key is, so what, why, so maybe, one, how is that a mark of creativity?
John Kounios: Aha moments are these insights, they give you an understanding of something, or a solution to a problem that isn't obvious. So if it were obvious, then it wouldn't be creative. The fact that so for example, you could take all the notes of the scale. And it's only a genius like Beethoven, who can rearrange the notes of the scale to find this non obvious combination, that is the ninth symphony or something like that. Someone else wouldn't be able to find that non obvious solution. So harmonics are an example of creativity because they confer a, a non obvious recombination of ideas or elements of a problem or a situation. And so that, you know, in a way, that's sort of the hallmark of creativity, because something about creativity is that a defining characteristic is that it has to be surprising, in a sense, when you look at something if something's obvious, you don't say, oh, that's creative. If something is a, it strikes you was I never thought of that before. Or Wow, how did the person get that? That is that kind of non obvious rearrangement. That is a defining hallmark of creativity.
Sucheta Kamath: So then why is solving a problem? A doesn't give us this feeling of, oh, wow, I have never thought it this way. Versus I was looking to find a solution. And thank God, I found it kind of thing. You know what I mean? So there's a little bit of unanticipated effect of the aha moment related creativity versus intentional problem solving. When you reach it, you're like, there's a relief, like, Thank God, am I getting it? Right?
John Kounios: Yes, absolutely. Certainly, the the there is a relief. Well, not everyone for not, it's not really for everyone. So some people love tackling problems, and they enjoy working on the problem as much as solving it. I'm not that kind of person. I don't like problems. I like solutions to things. That's true for some people. But when I solve a problem, in a little deliberate analytical fashion, I experienced that kind of relief. And when analytical solving, you know, you have a mental plan of what to do, if you're adding up a bunch of numbers is I take this number, I add it to this number I carried over the column, next column, I had this number in etc. So you know where you're going, you know, you're getting closer and closer to the solution. And you know, when you've reached it with insight, most of the mental work is unconscious. And that's why an insight can be surprising is that it can intrude into your awareness when you you aren't even consciously working on the problem like people have the so called shower aha moment. In the shower or while taking a walk or looking in the mirror or something like that, you can be surprised by that because the work is being done unconsciously. And then it pops into awareness when that mental processes run to completion. And that is for many people accompanied, not by relief, but actual pleasure. So we did a study that was published last year brain imaging study, in which we gave people anagrams to solve. And when sometimes they solve them analytically, just rearranging the letters to find a word. Other times, they had aha moments where the the correct, the word would just pop out into their awareness. For some people, there was not only that burst of brain activity, when they saw that when they had the aha moment, but there was another burst of brain activity in the brain's reward system, this is the same reward system that is, becomes activated when you eat delicious food. When you take addictive drugs, with orgasms with all kinds of basic pleasures, for some people, having an aha moment is a visceral pleasure. And that's why a lot of people like to work on into crossword puzzles, read murder, mysteries, create things paint, do research all kinds of things that you'll to create a product in which they can, they can experience some kind of aha moment. And you know, the phenomena of the starving artists, there are people who they have the ability to take a high paying job that may have no creative outlet. But instead of that, they'll they'll starve. And you know, if they can have a job that even pays nothing to do their art or their their writing, or whatever it is to experience this. This reward system activity. It's sort of like being a drug addict. For some people, in a sense, there are people I believe, who are addicted to creativity. And if they can't have that kind of creative outlet, they become depressed, they go through withdrawal symptoms. So So yes.
Sucheta Kamath: So another interesting study, I mean, you have done such clever experiments and one interest, one interesting study, maybe you can talk about, as you were mentioning about anagram, but you also kind of saw, what is the profile of the brain at rest, oh, and going as far as like six weeks prior to actually either solving analytically or reaching an aha moment. So what have you can you explain the setup? And what have you learned from the about people's approach to creative problem solving?
John Kounios: Yeah, we did a study was published in about three years ago. And that study was led by a grad student at the time, who's now a professor Brian Erickson. And what we did was we recorded resting state brain activity, that's brain activity. When you have no test to perform you just sitting there relaxing, you could have your eyes open or your eyes closed, but there's no test to perform. And we recorded the resting state brain activity with EEG, electroencephalogram, the the electrical activity of the brain, from a number of people. And then, weeks later, seven weeks later, we gave them puzzles to solve. anagrams are other kinds of verbal puzzles. And we found that some people solve most of these puzzles with an aha moment. Other people solve most of the problems in this deliberate analytical fashion. So then we looked at the resting state brain activity from seven weeks earlier. And we compare these two groups of people and we found significant differences in their resting state brain activity. So when you're sitting there, doing nothing in particular, the pattern of brain activity you have predicts your cognitive style, how you go about thinking and solving problems, when you have a problem to solve. And what we found was that the analytical thinkers have more activity in frontal lobe of the brain, which is the seat of executive processes. And the the insightful people had more activity in sort of the left posterior part of the brain. So the these results suggest that analytical thinkers people who tend to think analytically that their their their resting state brain activity, their sort of baseline type of thinking is analytical even when they're not overtly thinking or working on a problem. And the people who tend to have more insights, they have less frontal lobectomy, less activity in the executive processing system. And that sort of releases dis inhibits posterior brain areas and letting them go rogue. I mean, it's sort of like, you know, the teacher leaves the room and the kids go wild, you know, until the teacher comes back. And that can generate these are hormones. Now, again, neither way of thinking is superior. In general, most people can think both ways they can think analytically. They could think insightfully slash crit creatively. And ideally, you want to be able to use both, but many people have sort of a style or a preference for one way of thinking over the other. And we're able to show the the differences in brain activity that correspond to those individual differences.
Sucheta Kamath: So is this does that mean? So is mind wandering state is the same state that you're describing where the rest of the brain has gone a little rogue, where it's not minding itself? Or monitoring itself? Is that a good way to describe that?
John Kounios: Yes, yes, it is. Yeah. mind wandering is just what you're doing? Well, alright, let's, let's make a distinction here, between the instructions, you can give a person instructions, just say, you know, I'm not giving you a test to perform, just sit there and relax, just hang Now, some people will let their minds wander, other people will sit there and say, Okay, well, I have this problem to solve, I've got, what do I have to buy at the supermarket later, I have to buy milk, and I have to buy vegetables, you know, they'll they'll do analytical sort of problem solving while they're sitting there. So you might have to give them actual instructions, those kinds of people to Don't think about anything in particular, just let your mind relax, and wander. So then those people who are, they can be kind of uptight, and you know, they're always trying to do something, then they'll might, they might relax a little bit. And let those thoughts just flow.
Sucheta Kamath: Because you know, what I find, I mean, oh, my god, don't even get me started. But there's so much conversation happening, and so many podcasts about how to hack into your brain and how to become more productive. There's almost insinuation that if your brain is not busy doing something, you're probably lost control over your life, you know, so there's this idea that free time is needs to be most efficiently used for something in the future, rather than just hang back do nothing. Let the brain do its thing kind of thing. Right? So there's a little bit of a pressure I feel culturally, far more than I see in my own lifetime. Oh, that nobody was keeping tabs of what was going on in inside you when you were doing nothing? Or wherever, even if you are doing something like attending a meeting? Yes. So then, yeah,
John Kounios: That's just that's just nonsense. I mean, so bad. Some people have this attitude. I think there's a quote from Napoleon, where he was once asked, what's the right amount of sleep for person to get? And his answer was something I might be distorting a little bit, but it's pretty close to four hours of sleep for men, six hours of sleep for a woman, eight hours of sleep for a fool.
Sucheta Kamath: So under estimating sleep completely,
John Kounios: Yes, exactly. Now, what we now know is that sleep is not just turning off the brain, sleep, there are important mental processes that go on due to sleep. And I like to think of sleep as being actual mental work. Your brain is working on things while you sleep. It's reorganizing your knowledge. It's putting things together making associations, sleep is mental work. And I you know, I recommend to people, if they're at work, and they're stuck on something, take a little nap. And if their boss complains, tell them, I said they should take a nap, they can blame it on me. But no. And even if you're sitting there presumably doing nothing, your brain is still doing something you're not consciously aware of it. And it was that that period of relaxation or mind wandering, that can lead to an aha moment later on. That Hamam it may appear while you're relaxing, it may appear a few hours, it could appear 10 years later, but it is doing something and this constant pressure to do things in a in an analytical fashion, constantly. I mean, for some types of work for work that is purely analytical. All right, it kind of makes sense. It's a little brutal, but for any kind of work, where you need to have some kind of understanding some kind of comprehension where You know it, whether it's how to deal with a client, whether it's how to get your, your, the software on your computer to work or whatever it is, anything that requires that even little insights, those periods of not trying to do anything in particular, are essential. They're a necessary precursor to aha moments.
Sucheta Kamath: So this brings me to this question now in, in my work with executive dysfunction, which is a dysregulated way of, you know, in the process of goal pursuit, you're dysregulated. So when you veer away, in pursuit of your goals, and taking detours, you never return to the main course, or main pathway. And one thing that I find one of the most effective and powerful ways of provide intervention is to help build insight, because insight into self, who am I as a learner? Who am I, as a thinker? What are my what is the nature and scope of my mistakes? And how can I solve my own problem created by me or faced by me, so that my future self is in a better condition. So this is the framework of executive function management. One problem I see often or highly exaggerated for people with executive dysfunction is utter and complete lack of insight. So their ability to shine the flashlight on self and look at self in search of, or making those connections in the wind, mind wandering states, for the problems I'm facing, what can I do differently so that my problems that I'm facing, reduce? So do you have any insight, one from your research? Why do the same principles of problem solving don't get applied to self related problem problems? And second, why do people not contemplate like, oh, you know, I had one of the researchers who was talking, there's average, 17 minutes a week, a human being spent on self or thinking about thoughts of self, right, you know, Ethan Kross who has written a book on mind chatter? And so we don't like to linger there, because it's very painful. So I'm wondering, what are your thoughts? Or what kind of encouragement can we give people? Because to me, we have only one brain. And if it's capable of doing these amazing, creative problem solving, why can't we apply those same principles to Self?
John Kounios: Yeah, I mean, this, you know, I think you've hit on the key question of personal development. And I think, I mean, there's several answers to this. One is that, you know, for some people, that kind of introspection is difficult. Sometimes people don't like thinking about themselves, or looking into their own mind or soul, or however, however want one wants to put it. And I think that people who don't like themselves, or like what they see, when they look in the mirror, metaphorically, they, they need to rethink their relationship to themselves. You have to like your, if you don't like yourself, you're not really going to do that kind of introspective work. But I think there are ways around that. And I think the way around that is through coaching, whether it's a friend or a spouse, or someone whom you trust, and are willing to listen to, who will tell you, you know, you're this is what you're like, This is what you tend to do. And maybe you should make these changes. And, you know, I my wife does that all the time. And I listened to her because she's, you know, usually write about these things. And you have to, if you're not going to listen to yourself, you have to be able to listen to someone else that you trust. But yes, it takes it takes time to relax, and introspect or listen to someone else. And many people don't have the time or they don't want to make the time to do that. And they're just going to be stuck in the same on the same treadmill in the same rut, whatever metaphor you want to use. But you can't be the human mind that your the brain was not built for, to be constantly driven to for analytical work. You there are different states. And you need to be able to whether it's awake and asleep, rest, active work, you need to cycle through these states in order to be healthy, but also to get things done. So I know that there are times when I'm in a very sharp analytical mood, that's when I do my analytical work the other times when my thinking is a little blurry and fuzzy. And that's when I tend to have ideas and in fact, research shows that that there are people have different pieces times of the day, there are morning people, their evening people, whatever your peak time of day is, if you're a morning person, that's when you should do your real analytical thinking. And you will tend to have your creative ideas at night, when your executive process are a little fuzzy, maybe aren't, you know, not working quite right, a little leaky, and ideas can pop up, if you're a night person, do your analytical work, then, and then you know, you have do your creative thinking in the morning, that's the time you should take to sort of let your mind wander onto different topics. And that that's a part of self insight right there, knowing how your own brain works. And instead of fighting it, instead of forcing yourself to, to think in a way that you're that's not that your brain state at the moment, use that to your advantage. I mean, if you can be one of these rare people that can control their brain state, then by all means whatever state you need to be in, impose that state on your brain and do it. But I think that is a very rare ability, I mean, we tend to do it a little bit through self medication, you know, you have that cup of coffee to get a little sharper. Maybe you you have a glass of wine to loosen up and things like that. There are limits to that. People can also self medicate with different types of music, and exercise and relaxation. But there are limits to that. And if you if you have the luxury of doing the type of work that suits the state you're in, that's one way to be very effective or productive.
Sucheta Kamath: Amazing, you already have given us so many suggestions. And I'm wondering now, if we kind of touched upon this, but what's the role of of this attention in this whole process. And in the day and age where we are constantly interrupted, you know, I kind of hate my phone kind of gives me a report on my phone usage, which I created and crafted but it's so painful to look at my amazingly shabby behaviors. And I'm just wondering, you know, the cost of shift right like cost? What's the cost of switching attention is so expensive, it takes almost 20 minutes to come back to a state where we can do deep work. What do you think about this, even creating amazing conditions for the aha moment to take some roots, which is again, you know, going for nature walks, but people are listening to things when they go for walks nowadays, you know, they nobody's like, just really immersive not being interrupted. So do you see a value in us having an adulterated life experience to induce some conditions for mind wandering, or?
John Kounios: Absolutely, absolutely. And you can do it on a small scale, or you can do it on a large scale, I do it on a small scale, with with my fancy noise cancelling headphones, and I commute to work on the train. And I put on my noise cancelling headphones, and I turn off my my smartphone, and I just relax. Sometimes I play some soft music in the background, but it's so soft, I can barely hear it, and sort of block out with the environment. And I'll even put on sunglasses, so that the light from the the window and the trains, and I just let ideas flow. Ideally, you can you can have nature experiences without electronics. But some studies have shown that it takes you know, like three days out in nature continuously to really improve your attention. And I mean, you know, if you go for a walk for half an hour, it's going to help but to get real benefit. You have to really decompress, decompress, or shall we say detoxify, your your your executive process and your attention will take about three days to sort of rejuvenate themselves and reenergize. So that's the role of vacations, but has to be a real vacation not not a working vacation, not a vacation where you're constantly checking your texts and your emails. And and if you have to do that, you know, you make a time like half an hour at a certain point in the day. You can turn on your phone and look at what messages you have in otherwise, but even that diminishes the benefit of vacation. Many people who have you know high pressure jobs or creative jobs when they go out of Vacation, that's when they get the solutions to problems, that's when they get great ideas is when they're finally letting their brains just sort of unwind and, and disengage from the world around them. So, you know, people who don't take vacations, they're really depriving themselves of a source of creativity and inspiration.
Sucheta Kamath: I'm very impressed that you actually stay unplugged during your everyday commute. And it's it's really remarkable. I, you know, I'm doing my mindfulness meditation, teacher training, and this is my second year into it. But one thing that I have started because of it, were his silent retreat. So I did my first seven day silent retreat, you know, I'm a woman who loves to speak, and that was a, but this is not a silent retreat, that you can silently be on your laptop, or silently read your own, you know, have your phone, this was electronic silence, like everything, and it was extremely, almost like a fish out of water for me for beginning. But then what I have started doing is once a month, I do a mon rot, which is a vow of silence. It's called vow of noble silence. And just again, you know, attracting from all tools and gadgets, and I find find that very, very helpful. But it typically takes me three to four hours of angst of, I don't know what to do with myself, because I want to look it up. There's this urgency with which I feel information needs to be clarified, as if nothing can be ambiguous, you know, but it's also self created. The second point I wanted to kind of see if you can help us with is when when you say, Do you know, do people actually realize that they are being more creative or less creative? Is there some internal radar that people can use to gauge that? Or is it just, you know, your research shows also that positivity leads to more creativity. So maybe irritability is a good indicator that you're not going to be creative? But how can we measure?
John Kounios: Yeah, yeah, I mean, I think creative people can be irritable, when their creativity is blocked, when they don't have the the opportunity, or their creativity is not being recognized, they're not getting their, you know, their props, so to speak. But yet, studies have shown that people are a pretty good judges of their own level of creativity, that if you give them questionnaires to have them assess their creativity in different ways, that the the results of those questionnaires do match pretty well, with their actual creative achievements, or with with laboratory tests that measure creativity. So people have a pretty good sense. And I think, most people, the vast majority of people would like to be more creative in some way or other, just like, you know, nobody wants to be dumber, everybody wants to be smarter. Some people may be satisfied with their level of intelligence, but I think most people want to be smarter. Most people want to be more creative, you know, like, they say, you can't be too rich, or too thin, right? It's sort of you can't be too smart or too creative. And I think that that, you know, some people are starting from a more creative level, and they still want to improve that. And other people are starting at a less creative level, they still want to improve that. And some people are going to extreme measures, like, you know, you read stories in, in magazines about unnamed Silicon Valley tech leaders, who microdose psychedelic drugs on a daily basis to try to become more creative. And, you know, I mean, I think there are probably better ways to be more creative. And it's probably easier if they just hire some creative people. But, you know, to do that, you know, I don't know, I don't think there's been any rigorous research that shows whether that will make someone more creative or not, or whether it does has any negative effects in the short or long run. But, you know, people will sometimes go to extreme lengths to try to get all kinds of new ideas about things so everyone wants to be more creative.
Sucheta Kamath: So as we end what is what's been the most surprising thing that you have discovered in this process of dedicating your career to this topic and or this line of thinking, oh, what would you say is the most interesting revelation to you?
John Kounios: Yeah, I'm there's several I'll just mention. Sure. Briefly, a few. One was our surprise and this is research I did with my my longtime collaborator and friend Mark Beeman at Northwestern University that we could identify a very specific brain process associated with an aha moment, this this burst of brain activity in a very specific part of the brain, when people solve certain kind of verbal puzzles. And we thought that, you know, it would be if we had somebody in our first experiment, and we just, you know, it, we lucked out, beginner's luck, whatever, amazing. We hit it, we nailed it on the first try. And that was very surprising. I was very surprised by the study that I mentioned a little while ago, that resting state brain activity could predict your your cognitive style, your thinking style, at least seven weeks in advance, I mean, we didn't look further out. But the fact that you can get a little sample of a person's brainwaves and predict how they will go about solving problems, a couple of months later, I found that to be very surprising. So they've been there been just a number of these surprises, some that we could find results at all, and some that the results pointed to things that we didn't think would be as clear cut as they are.
Sucheta Kamath: You know, I was really surprised by rather how clever your experimental setup or so to trigger because, you know, you can see a result of a deep analytical thinking into a result and, but to Aha, which is such a sudden, and you can make certain things happen, because every single thing like you need a bathtub, or nature to make that happen. So I thought that was very, very interesting. So last question, as you think about your own own process in everyday life? Or is there a way to think about that we go ebb and flow of life, or rather, we tend to be creative and then analytical, or it doesn't, or we just kind of activate our thinking based on the demands on our demands on our goal. directedness? Or what we want to achieve, how does how do we? Or are they most people? Or are there some people who are just naturally curious, which makes them creative? Maybe that's not even a good question. But I was just wondering.
John Kounios: There are actually two questions in Yes, yes. Let me answer the first one. So some people, I think, have a very constant sort of state. They're, they're very even tempered their executive processes, that everything is very constant. And that is very helpful in predicting. So for example, if you know you have to do a particular type of thinking for your job. And you know, you can predict what your thinking ability will be at a particular time. That's great. Other people, their states change they from from, you know, maybe not minute to minute, but maybe hour to hour, or at least over the course of a few hours, and certainly from day to day. And for those people, you know, you have to pick your job carefully. I mean, you don't want to be that kind of person and be an air traffic controller, for example. Because if you're an air traffic controller, you've got to be sharp, analytical focused all the time while you're at work, until you go home, and then unwind or do whatever you have to do. So some people are able to manipulate their brain states a bit, and through caffeine and things like that. Personally, as a professor and a researcher, I have some flexibility in my time. So if I am not in an analytical frame of mind at a particular time, then I'll put off generating ideas to some other time. Now, analytical thinking, it squashes insight. So if I, you know, give you a whole bunch of arithmetic problems to solve, and you go through them, and you do them on a step by step fashion. Right after that is probably not the time I should expect you to generate all kinds of creative ideas. Because you've activated your frontal lobe, your executive process are fired up, and it takes a while to wind down. And so that's why you know, in the shower, that's when people often have these insights. I know I get them and and and some people like Aaron Sorkin, who the script writer screenwriter for movies and TV shows. In interviews, he said that when he's working on a script, he takes six or seven showers a day, just to get idea to write about. And I don't think he was joking about that, I think, yes, probably serious. So it takes a while to get out of an analytical frame of mind to have these ideas bubble up. But you can get into an analytical frame of mind very easily by, for example, putting someone in a bad mood, I mean, just the wrong word about that can create a little anxiety, narrow person's attention, that can put them in analytical frame of mind very quickly, it's harder to get out of that, to let everything settle down and let ideas flow.
Sucheta Kamath: That's brilliant insight. I just say I had an aha moment that it's you right? You know, it kind of a high alert tunnel vision, highly focused on a problem mindset is great temporarily, but to unlock it, the effect of coloring, you know, even the the residue, residual effects of all the previous unfavorable emotions just take so long to dump them.
John Kounios: Well, we have another minute. Yeah, we do, we do. A lot of this boils down to what psychologists called psychological safety. So imagine that you are an early human on the savanna in Africa, and you're in a good mood, and then all of a sudden, off in the distance, way in the distance, you see a lion. Now you know, that if that lion detects you, you're dead, your dinner for the lion. So you your brain kicks into an anxious but highly analytical form of thinking in which you know, you can't make any mistakes, any mistake will be fatal. And you think, am I upwind or downwind from the line, if I move will that make noise is there someplace close by I can hide, right? You do that all very deliberately and analytically. And it only takes the side of the lion bang like that, to put you in analytical frame of mind. However, you've survived that you go back to your with your clan, your tribe in a cave at night, you have a nice warm fire, it's safe in the cave, and you feel safe, you can relax, good mood, and then there's no threat. And if there's no threat, then that enables creative thought. Because anytime you think something new or say something new, or do something new, there's risk involved, the risk could be something as simple as being wrong, or something that doesn't make sense. But that that reduced threat, that psychological safety, allows attention to expand, and it brings out creativity. But once you see the line, you get the tunnel vision, and deliberate and all that. So most people these days in modern society, we have constant threat. I mean, it's not like threatening threat like a lion. But it's like being late for that meeting, not getting this work done by a deadline. You know, it could be not coming to a complete stop at the stop sign is there a policeman around or whatever. So it's easier to get into that relaxed feeling of psychological safety. The it's harder, it takes longer to unwind to get to that compared to seeing the lion and snapping into an analytical frame of mind right away.
Sucheta Kamath: And you know, I can see such a incredible bearing this has on children, when we want them to be creative. We want them to be easy going and approach learning as if it's just another way to teach the brain No, there's so many demands on get your spelling, right, make your name is on top of it, make sure you finish get started on time finish on time. So yeah, I think that's such a, I mean, I like to use this, those who can see me on video, but it's like this, you know, you're giving mixed signals. You're saying go go go no, stop, stop, stop, you know, you don't know which signal to pay attention to that can create a great amount of conflict. So this has been an amazing, enlightening and such crisp conversation. I really appreciate you sharing all your wisdom and wondering as we come to an end. Do you have any books that you love and have given you joy and you have found some direction or inspiration?
John Kounios: Yeah, I mean, sadly, with the the demands of work and family and everything. I don't get to read a lot of books these days. Most of my reading is scientific journal articles, but looking back, one book that I think you'll find many scientists of a certain age will mention a particular book, or it's actually trilogy. And this is a book that, for example, the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman a Nobel Prize winner in economics, he's mentioned Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy, which he read, as I think a teenager and I did, and many, many guys my age read. And that was an inspiration in it, just the idea that you have this character Harry Selden, who develops a form of mathematics that allows one to predict human behavior on a societal level. And that encouraged him to become an economist and it contributed to my becoming a psychologist and neuroscientist. Now, the Apple TV has a Foundation TV series, it's not that much like the original books, it that's more of an action adventure think the original books are about smart people outsmarting each other. But wow, Foundation trilogy was one thing, another in college reading, de cartes discourse on method, where he systematically doubted everything that he wasn't certain of, and he was left with one thing that he could not doubt, namely, his own existence, I think, therefore I am. And that had a big impact on me. And in a way, it's inspirational. In a way it's corrosive. And it's inspirational, in the sense that here is this guy, who really thought about how do we know what we think we know? Can we doubt? You know, what can we doubt? What can we not doubt? And he came to the conclusion, well, you know, most things, we can doubt, they may not, they may not be true. On the other hand, it's corrosive in the sense that if you only stick to the things that you can be absolutely sure of, namely, your own existence, you're not going to get anywhere in life, you have to believe something, if you don't believe something that you can't prove to yourself or to anyone else, then you have nothing. So you have to have some belief, as well as some very small number of things that perhaps that you can prove to yourself or to other people, and that that book had a big impact on me as well, both for what it says, but for what it doesn't say.
Sucheta Kamath: It's so interesting, you're such a mixture of analytical thinking and creative thinking, you know, you have a fiction of a grand imagination. And second very, very strong philosophical, and almost like, I don't want to call it call, spiritual experience, you know, through this book. Well, I am going to definitely look at I have not read Foundation trilogy. So I have to kind of read that sounds very, very interesting. One, one last question. When you wrote your own book, with your co author, was your process did you channel your aha moment? environment where you allow your brain to kind of wander and and, you know, not put any restriction or you also deployed structure? How did you go about it?
John Kounios: Yeah, I had, it was the first book that I ever wrote the only book so far, and I had to develop a method for writing it. And the method that I came up with sort of combined, the insightful and the analytic, and the method was that for, for each chapter, to just sort of free associate different ideas, just you know, and in no particular form, just almost like bullet points, just Well, what about this topic? It's related to the chapter, how about this, here's an ideas and just make a list without any self criticism or editing, and just spew it all out on paper. And then later, when I was in a more analytical frame of mind, taking the pieces and rearranging them into some kind of narrative or flow or argument, sometimes I would throw things out, sometimes I would add things in. But the most effective way to do that writing was to really separate out the idea generation from the assembly of the oven into a structure. I couldn't, I found that I couldn't efficiently do both at the same time. I mean, there are times there are people who if you ask them a question, and they speak, it will come out like something that they wrote and polished for months or years, and I'm not that type of person. But some people can do that. And I'm in awe of people who can do that. But for me, I had to really separate out those things and then put them back together again.
Sucheta Kamath: Well, great, thank you for doing that. I'm looking forward to another book whenever you get to it, if you wish to do it. I know writing is a very interesting and complex process. So that's all the time we have everybody. Thank you so much for tuning in today. As you can see, these are amazing, inspiring conversations with our knowledgeable, incredibly qualified and passionate experts. So definitely share the episode at the end, we will be attaching resources. So if you haven't checked it out on our website, please check it at www.prefrontal.com. And lastly, we'd love for you to write a review. That's how our listeners find us so once again, until we meet again, on Full PreFrontal episode. Have a great day. Thank you, John.
John Kounios: Thanks for having me. It's been a pleasure.