The science of eureka moments

A eureka moment is that magical epiphany when the solution to a problem seems to appear out of nowhere. Also known as an “Aha!” moment, little beats the sudden clarity you feel at solving a puzzle or finally understanding a previously unfathomable concept.

Eureka moments can lead to creative discoveries, the triumphant completion of a project, or the sudden, clear insight into how to make your business succeed. Let’s have a look at the scientific foundation of eureka moments, as well as the steps you can take to increase your chance of having more eureka moments at work.

Incubated epiphanies

One of the earliest alleged eureka moments is that of Archimedes in ancient Greece. When watching the bath water rise as he sat down in a public bath, Archimedes shouted “Eureka!” upon realising that the volume of an object can be deduced by immersing it in water.

Eureka! roughly translates to “I have found it!”, and eureka moments often refer to breakthroughs that occur when you least expect them. The excitement of a eureka moment is often heightened not only because of the solution your mind presents you with, but because of the suddenness of this new intuition. Eureka moments appear out of the blue when the problem itself is not part of your conscious thought process.

Today, there are several scientific and psychological theories regarding how and why eureka moments occur. Scientists have found that memory cues and sleep can lead to eureka moments. Many researchers have also agreed that a period of incubation is often needed before a eureka moment can occur.

The period of incubation is the time before you have the solution, during which you stop thinking about your dilemma. A study of physicists and writers in 2019 found that eureka moments were more likely to occur when the participants’ minds were free to roam, such as when showering or gardening, rather than when focused on the problem.

The great news is that it is possible for you to create the circumstances of an incubation period. By crafting the necessary environment, you could encourage your brain to enter a period of nonconscious processing, increasing your chances of suddenly finding the solutions that have previously eluded you.

How to have more eureka moments

Before you set up an incubation period, you need to have fully explored the problem you face. As frustrating as it may seem, only when you feel like you have reached a dead end is it the right time to stop trying to consciously solve the problem. 

Then is the perfect time to leave your brain to subconsciously manage your conundrum, whilst your mind is free to roam elsewhere. You can achieve this state by applying the following strategies.

Four strategies for more eureka moments

1. Seek solitude

Eureka moments often occur during times of solitude. Without the distraction of others, you may create the perfect conditions for unconscious creativity and clarity. Solitude doesn’t have to mean booking into an expensive retreat; some of the best ideas occur when showering, running, or driving the car.

For the best chance of idea formation, avoid external stimuli such as the radio or TV at times of solitude, to allow your mind to wander freely. You may find it helpful to always carry a small notepad and pen with you to make a note of any ideas that come to you unexpectedly.

2. Sit with the idea

Sometimes you can battle with an idea all day, yet despite your intense concentration you still don’t reach a satisfactory solution. The next morning, you may be surprised to experience a eureka moment whilst you are daydreaming in the car. 

When you struggle to let go of the control of your ideas, the creative processes within the brain can get stuck in a rut. Your thinking becomes blinkered, and any solutions are therefore limited. It can pay dividends to slow down and let an idea or problem ruminate overnight, for a few days, or even a few weeks. This conscious stalling is one of the key parts of the incubation period. 

If your next piece of work doesn’t have a tight turnaround, gently sit with your ideas for longer. During this time, your brain may enter a period of subconscious processing, allowing new ideas to rise to the surface. Slowing down gives you the exciting opportunity to find out what you already have within you when your brain is given free rein to explore.

3. Get some sleep

When work is frantic and you have not made the progress you hoped to, it can be tempting to stay up late to get the job done. However, there is acceptance within the scientific community that the chance of a eureka moment increases after sleeping on a problem. 

Sleep is thought to consolidate recent memories. In a scientific study, participants were taught a new technique. Compared to those who returned to the task later in the day or after being awake all night, those who returned to it following a period of sleep were the most likely to experience a eureka moment.

Sleep may be a time for the brain to subconsciously process previous events to construct potential future scenarios. In essence, memories can be restructured when we sleep. It is hypothesised that this process could help us prepare for possible upcoming events, and re-assembling thoughts in a new way could lead to a eureka moment.

This could explain why, despite thorough exploration of the problem beforehand, the insight that comes to us after an incubation period is completely different to anything we had previously considered. During sleep, our brains restructure our memories, and therefore our ideas, so that we see them in a different light.

4. Seek inspiration

Ensuring you have time to indulge in inspiring moments is not only good for your mental health, but it could also lead to eureka moments. Visiting an art gallery, walking in nature, listening to music, writing in a journal, or luxuriating in a candlelit bath can all heighten your senses. 

When you step away from your desk, your creativity can start to bubble unchecked. When you stop forcing your brain to think of new ideas, and instead indulge in another environment, external hints may start to seep into your mind unconsciously. Leaving your desk to head out for a jog or to sit in the garden could all lead to exciting ideas and eureka moments naturally unfolding within you, without any conscious processing.

By their nature, eureka moments occur when we least expect them to. Stepping away from a project to let it ruminate subconsciously within your mind could be one of the most successful ways to suddenly feel inspired by an idea.

When you have explored every avenue of a problem and find yourself unsure of your next steps, allow an incubation period to unfold so that your brain has the time to subconsciously process and restructure the problem. Taking your foot off the pedal could mean that your next eureka moment is just around the corner.

Join 100,000 mindful makers!

Ness Labs is a weekly newsletter with science-based insights on creativity, mindful productivity, better thinking and lifelong learning.

One email a week, no spam, ever. See our Privacy policy.