We’ve all been there: You’re facing a challenge and trying to come up with a bright idea to solve it. Now, science offers a simple but brilliant solution: Inspiration, it turns out, is only a blink away.
A new study finds that those “aha! moments,” as researchers call them, rise to the surface when you close your eyes — and sometimes even when you just stare into space or at a blank wall.
The researchers say in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review that these are “all signs of shutting out distractions and turning attention inward.” Although the moment when inspiration strikes can seem like an out-of-the-blue flash of insight, it’s actually part of a thought process
Think of your brain as a smartphone: Even when you’re not actively using it to do something, connections are being made and information is being processed automatically. Earlier research using MRIs and EEGs to measure brain activity found that different parts are activated when people try to solve problems analytically or via insight.
“Insights occur when a solution is computed unconsciously and later emerges into awareness suddenly,” researchers John Kounios and Mark Beeman explained in a 2009 article in the Journal of Psychological Science. In other words, the solution is in there, but in order to tap into it, you have to shut out some of the visual transmissions your brain’s operating system is trying to process at the same time.
In the new study, experiment subjects blinked more and moved their eyes less when they solved problems through insight, indicating that they were shutting out some of the visual static around them. (You blink less when your eyes are focused on something.) The researchers speculated this could be connected to an increase in the production of dopamine, a brain chemical associated with motivation and reward, as well as how we think and learn.
The gist of this dive into the scientific underpinnings is that closing your eyes or staring into space gives your mind a break from processing visual imagery so it can go retrieve a solution that’s floating just below the surface of your consciousness. So the next time you need a creative solution to a problem, don’t throw yourself into analyzing it. Instead, close your eyes so that “aha! moment” can break through.