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Eureka! They've Found It!

Eureka! They've Found It!Tufts researchers have isolated the electrical pulse that marks each "moment of clarity" in the brain, sparking new insights into how the brain handles thinking and creativity.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [12.19.01] Throughout history, "Eureka!" moments -- when fuzzy thoughts suddenly snap into focus -- have been responsible for some of our society's best thinking, from Darwin's theory of evolution to Edison's first light bulb. But scientists were still waiting for such an insight to explain how these moments of clarity actually work... until now.

Tufts researchers have just isolated the moment when the brain prompts us to say "aha!" -- paving the way for new insights into how the mind works.

"A moment of clarity may feel like a fleeting and mysterious experience, but now Tufts University scientists say they can measure it," reported The Boston Globe. "They are finding that the 'eureka moment' is marked by a distinct electrical pulse in the brain."

Sal Soraci -- an associate professor of psychology at Tufts -- and several of his colleagues have been studying the electrical activity in the brain during so-called "eureka moments" in an attempt to understand what occurs when a person suddenly grasps a particular concept.

As part of his research, Soraci used a set of carefully crafted sentences designed to trigger an "aha!" moment, reported the Globe.

"Imagine reading a sentence that doesn't seem to make sense: 'The girl spilled her popcorn because the lock broke.' The mind starts casting about for answers," reported the newspaper. "Then comes the clue -- lion cage. Suddenly -- aha! -- the sentence snaps into focus."

According to Soraci, his team at Tufts has isolated an electrical pulse in the front of the brain that corresponds with those moments of clarity.

"About 400 milliseconds after the key word is read, revealing the meaning of the sentence, electrodes on the scalp pick up a pulse, called a N400," reported the Globe.

While scientists have known about the electrical pulses in the brain for some time, the Tufts research is the first to isolate one for this particular brain function.

The discovery, says Soraci, opens new doors for researchers to understand the brain.

"[The Tufts research] indicates that the 'eureka moment' can not only be detected electrically, but may itself hold important secrets, giving new insights into creativity, thinking and memory, and even suggesting better ways to teach," reported the Globe. "One of the secrets may be the intriguing notion that confusion is key to memory."

The theory is based on the idea that the more the brain attempts to figure out a concept, the better it remembers it.

In one example, Soraci told the Globe he showed people a blurred object and slowly brought it into focus.

"As the object comes into focus, [Soraci explained], the brain generates a stream of guesses (Is it a doughnut? A peace symbol?) until the truth emerges (a clock)," reported the newspaper. "These wrong guesses may lay the foundation for a strong memory."

The theory could change the way teachers introduce new concepts.

"Solaci said educators should strive to design lessons that will give students 'aha moments,'" reported the Globe. "A lesson on evolution, for example, might start with some of the same clues Darwin saw -- striking similarities between man and ape, finches exquisitely attuned to their environments -- before explaining the theory."

The discovery is the latest in a stream of research by Soraci on the topic, dating back to 1979 when he and several colleagues first discovered what is now known as the "aha effect."

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