Your Brain Knows More Than You Do



In The Eureka Factor, John Kounios and Mark Beeman explain how insights arise and what the scientific research says about stimulating more of them.

An exclusive excerpt from "The Eureka Factor. Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain" by John Kounios  and  Mark Beeman


An ongoing negative mood signals that something is wrong. Danger lurks. This invokes an analytic mind-set and squashes your remote associations. You consciously ruminate over every detail and deliberately reason through everything because, when a situation is threatening, errors can’t be tolerated. 

But when you feel that your environment is safe, your mood is good. This grants you permission to engage in a more intuitive and creative style of thought. This free-wheeling cognitive style is riskier. It’s “iffy.” We’ve seen how fragile intuition is. Impressions can be vague. Jumping to conclusions can lead to errors. But an error here or there is tolerable when there is no serious threat. If you feel safe, why not take a chance and throw caution to the winds? Who knows what interesting things might happen? 

Many years ago, during the summer vacation before John’s first year of college, he had a part-time summer job in a department store that was a twenty-minute drive away from his home. One morning, he followed his usual routine of eating breakfast, showering, dressing, and so forth. He got in the car and started to drive to work. He was in a good mood because he had graduated from high school and was thinking about the adventure of starting college. However, after driving for about ten minutes, John was seized by the feeling that something was amiss. He had forgotten something. But what did he forget? He quickly ran through a mental checklist. His wallet was in his pocket. The gas tank was full. Nothing seemed to be missing. Even though he wasn’t able to put his finger on what could be wrong, the feeling just wouldn’t go away. Because he couldn’t think of what he might have forgotten, his analytical half told him that this feeling was vaporous nonsense. 

However, John’s intuitive half just had to know. It demanded that he go back home and check, even if this made him late for work. So he took the chance. It was an experiment—he had to know whether his trust in this feeling was well placed. 

He arrived back home and went to the door. He didn’t want to bother his mother, so instead of ringing the doorbell he reached for his key chain to open the door. He suddenly realized that the key chain had his car key but not his house key. Then he remembered that he had removed the house key from his key chain a few days earlier to give the key chain with the car key to a repair shop. After picking up the car from the shop, he had neglected to put his house key back on the key chain and had left it inside the house when he went to work that morning. If he hadn’t returned and realized that he had forgotten his house key, then he would have found himself locked out of the house when he came home after work because no one would have been home to let him in. Some part of him knew that he had forgotten something, even though he couldn’t consciously figure out what it was. But he had been in a good mood, so he took the chance and trusted that his brain knew what it was doing. His good mood not only made the intuition possible, but it also inclined him to trust it. This kind of trust is another key ingredient to the effective use of intuition. 


What did the disaster of Hurricane Katrina mean to you? How about the massive oil spill from British Petroleum’s offshore well in the Gulf of Mexico? The tsunami and nuclear reactor disaster in Japan? Is there a deeper significance to these events, or were they random and senseless? 

Consider the following sayings. How meaningful are they to you? 

“Sometimes it’s necessary to go a long distance out of the way in order to come back a short distance correctly.”

“Think like a man of action; act like a man of thought.”

“No matter where you go or what you do, you live your entire life within the confines of your head.” 

Now consider the following Zen koans. What, if anything, do they mean to you? 

“If you understand, things are just as they are. . . . If you do not understand, things are just as they are.”

“One day as Manjusri stood outside the gate, the Buddha called to him, ‘Manjusri, Manjusri, why do you not enter?’ Manjusri replied, ‘I do not see myself as outside. Why enter?’ ”

“Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind. One said, ‘The flag moves.’ The other said, ‘The wind moves.’ They argued back and forth but could not agree. Huineng, the sixth patriarch, said: ‘Gentlemen! It is not the flag that moves. It is not the wind that moves. It is your mind that moves.’ ” 

If you question people, you’ll find that some see meaning everywhere, in events like the Japanese tsunami and in cryptic sayings like those above. They will give you impassioned explanations of the significance of such things. Other people deny any inherent meaning. “Stuff just happens. Live with it.” 

What accounts for such differences in attitude? 

Social psychologist Joshua Hicks and his collaborators tackled this question. They presented such sayings and abstract drawings to people and asked them to rate how meaningful the participants felt that they were. They also asked participants to rate the meaningfulness of particular life events such as Hurricane Katrina. Importantly, they also asked their participants to fill out questionnaires that assessed their mood and aspects of their personalities. 

By now, it shouldn’t be surprising that they found that people tend to sense meaning in events when they are in a positive mood and see things as random and meaningless when in a negative mood. But there is another key factor that regulates the relationship between mood and intuition. 

The questionnaire that participants had filled out assessed a psychological characteristic called “faith in intuition,” which is the extent to which a person has intuitions and trusts them. This questionnaire consists of a series of statements with which a person indicates agreement or disagreement. For each statement, she rates the strength of her endorsement or rejection. Example items include: 

“I believe in trusting my hunches.”

“I tend to use my heart as a guide for my actions.” “I rely on my intuitive impressions.”

“I trust my initial feelings about people.” 

Hicks found that a positive mood contributed to the sense that events have meaning—but only for those people who scored high in faith in intuition. For those with little or no faith in intuition, a positive mood didn’t enhance their sense of meaning in the world. So mood influences intuition, but not equally for everyone. 

One potential criticism of this finding is that when people are in a good mood and trust their intuitions, they are essentially putting on rose-colored glasses. They may be biased to think that the world has meaning, even when it doesn’t. No one can objectively prove that a tsunami or a Zen koan has any real meaning, so it’s impossible to prove that the tendency to see meaning in such things isn’t just an expression of subjective bias rather than objective perceptiveness. If this is just bias, then we shouldn’t believe that intuitions have any validity or significance. They are just as meaningless as the events that evoked them.  

The researchers addressed this point with a laboratory task that does have objective solutions: “semantic coherence” problems which require a person to make a snap judgment about whether three words are connected by association to a single solution word. The results were the same. People who trusted their intuition and were in a good mood did better at quickly judging which problems had solutions and which didn’t. So intuition can be enhanced by a positive mood. But this doesn’t work for everyone. It’s not enough to have accurate intuitions. You also have to trust them. 

And like mood, this trust is a malleable thing. 

It’s been shown that Intuitives tend toward belief in God. Intuitives often sense a connectedness and meaning in the world that they attribute to God’s influence. This relationship between intuitiveness and religious belief is independent of IQ, personality, and other factors. But that doesn’t mean that it’s fixed in all Intuitives. When researchers asked participants of a study to remember instances from their past in which intuition had served them well, this actually increased their belief in God. Conversely, recalling successful examples of critical analytic thought decreased it. So not only might some people’s faith be temporarily bolstered or shaken by recalling events from their past, but also their faith in intuition might be strengthened or sapped, with effects that ripple through their understanding of the universe and themselves. 

For some, it’s natural to simply “trust one’s gut.” For others, it’s difficult to yield to their intuitions. The question is why. One possibility is that faith in intuition is simply a matter of faith. A person may have no objective evidence that his intuition is reliable but may trust it anyway because it’s part of his belief system or self-image. 

However, we all know people who have consistently bad intuitions but nevertheless continue to trust them, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Indeed, some political and business leaders can be counted among this group. Other people who put too much faith in their poor intuitive ability follow their gut because their analytical abilities are even worse. They choose intuition as the lesser of evils when the smarter choice (which they don’t have the sense to make) would be to let someone else do the thinking for them. 

But this doesn’t explain all people’s choices. 


Until recently, it was assumed that differences in cognitive ability were almost entirely due to analytic thought—the kind of thought measured by IQ tests. The idea was that people differ greatly in analytic ability; they don’t differ much in the kind of unconscious associative processes on which intuition is based. We now know that this view is wrong. 

Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman and his colleagues gave their participants a battery of cognitive tests, including both tests of analytical ability and tests of unconscious intuitive thought. Just as there are substantial differences among people in analytic intelligence, they also found substantial differences in intuitive ability. And these two types of cognitive ability weren’t strongly related to each other—just because you’re good at one doesn’t mean that you’re good at the other. 

Intuitives—people who are high in intuitive ability and are close relatives of our Insightfuls—have a particular type of personality. They are impulsive thinkers who appear to shoot from the hip. This is because the intuitions that they rely on can often be quicker than the lumbering methodical thought of Analysts. Intuitives are also high in a personality trait known as “openness,” which means that they tend to focus on their experiences of patterns and feelings rather than on their analytic thoughts. 

The fact that some people really are more intuitive than others goes a long way toward explaining why some trust their intuitions while others rely more on analytic thought. Most people generally have a sense of what they are good at. Not everyone has accurate self- knowledge, of course. People tend to be overconfident about their cognitive abilities, which is why students frequently wrap up a test feeling that they aced it when they, well, didn’t. But most people do seem to have some appreciation for their intellectual strengths and weaknesses. They go with what seems to work best for them, which, for Intuitives, are the greased associative pathways that allow ideas to ping one another in an unconscious chain reaction. 

But if this pinging ends there and never culminates in a conscious aha moment, then all that the Intuitive is left with are vague feelings— whispers from the basement of the mind. We’ve all met people like this. They have good instincts but don’t understand and can’t explain why they act and feel the way they do. Intuitives of this type haven’t yet gotten in touch with their inner Insightful. Their feelings of impending enlightenment don’t culminate in an aha moment. 

Finally, even if you are an Intuitive, a cautionary note is in order. Intuition can be a powerful way to know the world. Trusting your hunches often works. It can let you sense the impressions, patterns, and ideas percolating in your unconscious mind. But many factors can create a false confidence that an intuition is valid. So when you have an intuition, don’t make an impulsive decision to either follow or reject it. Ask yourself why you are having that hunch, at that time, and at that place. The answers to these questions will help you to decide whether to trust a particular intuition. Remember, your brain knows more than you do, but it doesn’t know everything. 


In The Eureka Factor, John Kounios and Mark Beeman explain how insights arise and what the scientific research says about stimulating more of them. They discuss how various conditions affect your likelihood of having an insight; when insight is helpful and when deliberate, methodical thought is better suited to a task; what the relationship is between insight and intuition; and how the brain’s right hemisphere contributes to creative thought.  

Written in a lively style, this book goes beyond scientific principles to offer productive techniques for realizing your creative potential—at home and at work. The authors provide compelling anecdotes to illustrate how eureka experiences can be a key factor in your life. Attend a dinner party with Christopher Columbus to learn why we need insights. Go to a baseball game with the director of a classic Disney Pixar movie to learn about one important type of aha moment. Observe the behind-the-scenes arrangements for an Elvis Presley concert to learn why the timing of insights makes them difficult but crucial.

Accessible and inspiring, The Eureka Factor is a fascinating look at the human brain and its seemingly infinite capacity to surprise us.

See also:  "Eureka? Yes, Eureka!" - The New York Times Op-Ed by John Kounios 

Tags: aha moment, insight, john kounios, mark beeman, the eureka factor

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