What is insight? An Extract from The Eureka Factor

Among the general public, insight, or those ‘eureka!’ moments, are often discussed as unpredictable, almost mystical, moments.  But what if we could understand the science behind those moments? Or even learn how to replicate the situations they occur in? John Kounios and Mark Beeman have done just that,  as leading experts on the neural bases of insight and creative thinking there work gives us an amazing look at how ‘insight’ truly happens.  The extract below discusses just what ‘insight’ is along with fantastic examples (especially if you’re a Disney fan).


Andrew Stanton of Pixar Animation Studios already had a string of hit movies to his credit. He had written blockbusters such as Toy Story; Monsters, Inc.; Finding Nemo; and Cars and was writing a new film that would prove just as successful: WALL-E, about the last robot left on a hopelessly polluted earth abandoned by humans many years before. One of the problems with which he had been struggling was the design of WALL-E’s face. It had to be machinelike, yet expressive.

One day, Stanton went to a baseball game. He couldn’t see the game very well, because his seat was “crappy” (for which he blamed his editor). So he borrowed a pair of binoculars from the person sitting next to him. He mistakenly turned the binoculars around. With the lenses on the wrong side staring at him, the answer to the problem “dropped in my lap.” The binoculars looked like a face. He flexed the inner hinge a few times to create different facial expressions and saw “an entire character with a soul in it.” It was settled. The robot WALL-E would look like a “binocular on a stem.”

Stanton’s insight caused him to miss a whole inning of the game. Undoubtedly, winning an Oscar made up for that.

This aha moment conferred an analogical insight. Analogical thinking solves a problem by revealing a deep relationship between two things that appear very different from each other on the surface. Insights aren’t the only way to experience an analogy. You can deliberately try to construct one. But when you spontaneously realize that one situation is similar to another, you’ve had an analogical insight.


Insights often interrupt ongoing thought, most dramatically when a person isn’t even thinking about the problem whose solution suddenly presents itself.

eureka factor unconcious

Though abrupt, like volcanic eruptions, insights are culminations of sustained underground activity called “incubation.”

Judah Folkman hadn’t been thinking about cancer when he realized that tumors couldn’t grow beyond the size of a pinhead without recruiting a blood supply. However, seeing tiny tumors devoid of blood vessels ignited an incubation process that sparked his idea that controlling the growth of blood vessels would allow one to control the growth of tumors. Later, he spent many years thinking about cancer and angiogenesis, which put all the elements of his next insight into place. These pieces eventually snapped together when he ducked out of his lab to attend a religious service. Similarly, Andrew Stanton had been struggling for some time with the problem of a face for WALL-E. The answer appeared when he took a break from work to enjoy a baseball game.

Such examples show that an insight can incubate unconsciously in your brain while you’re thinking about other things, only to pop into consciousness at an unexpected moment, sometimes triggered by a seemingly irrelevant stimulus such as bloodless tumors or a pair of binoculars. Later we’ll see how an insight’s path to awareness can also be greased by a change of setting or context and an improved mood. (Wag Dodge’s insight during a crisis is not typical, as we discuss in the notes to Chapter 9.) A change in setting or mood neither directly causes insights nor prevents them, though they can promote particular brain states that will facilitate or inhibit insight. These brain states are fertilizers for seedling ideas.

The Eureka Factor by John Kounios and Mark Beeman is available in paperback and ebook now.

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