Eureka Moments, All Over Again

Compact fluorescent light bulb or cfl.

A new kind of light bulb to signify learning a new technique.

In this season of baseball, one might be reminded of Yogi Bera’s comment, “This is like déjà vu all over again.” Instead of déjà vu though, it’s the Eureka! moment that seems to happen all over again, for me.

Anyone approaching their third (or fourth or fifth?) decade, may entertain an occasional obsession about the state of their brain health. The slightest pause to recall a name, or problem finding one’s car keys can set off a state of panic at the possible sign of aging.

While the eureka moment has, for many scientists, brought fantastic new ideas, patentable, sellable moments that place that person forever in the annals of history, we hear about those cases as a single event. Eins. Uno. One.

What if one has these moments more frequently, maybe once or twice a month? I’m talking about novel “ah-ha” moments, not the same idea over and over again. It’s hard not to wonder, “Why all this information, so suddenly, now?

An article published in the May 13, 2010 edition of the Cell Press journal Neuron may have the answer (1) and fortunately, the reason is not brain shrinkage.

We are all affected by changes that force us to abandon a current way of doing things, and adopt new methods or different approaches to accomplishing tasks. While it’s understood that new methods are generally implemented by trial-and-error and its resultant learning, the neural processes that underlie this change from the familiar to the new, are yet to be fully elucidated.

What is known, says one of the principle researchers of the study, Dr. Jeremy K. Seamans of the Brain Research Centre at the University of British Columbia, is that the brain’s frontal lobes are important processing centers for animals and humans in inferring and applying new rules to maximize rewards. In this latest work, Seamans, et al. studied how rat brain neuronal networks in the frontal cortex switched from encoding a familiar behavior to a completely new one, that could only be deduced by trial and error (2).

They set out to study whether the neural networks changed their activity in a slow gradual manner as the old behavior was replaced by a new one, or whether that transition was more immediate. They studied neural assemblages in the medial frontal cortex of rats, as the rats were forced to deduce a novel behavior for a specifically designed task.

The researchers found that the same populations of neurons formed unique networks, corresponding to the familiar and novel tasks. Even though it took a number of attempts for the rats to figure out the new rule, the recorded neural networks did not change gradually. Instead, the neurons exhibited an abrupt transition to a new pattern, which corresponded directly to an observed behavioral shift, the equivalent of a rat epiphany, perhaps.

One of the study’s co-authors, Daniel Durstewitz concurred that in this problem solving context, where the animal had to infer a new behavior by accumulating evidence through trial and error, the combined sudden neural and behavioral change could be connected to a moment of sudden insight.

This is very good news for anyone worried about the ability to learn new things or about what eureka moments mean. A possible take away message is that: 1) I’m still capable of learning ; 2) the trial-and-error method can result in learning, and; 3) a good eureka moment is proof of 4) all the above.

Some of my Eureka Moments include:

  • Corrections can be delivered without anger (dog training insight).
  • One can mow the lawn with a corded electric mower more efficiently by mowing from near the power outlet to far from the outlet, rather than mowing from far to near, where the power cord is always in the way.

So I’m not re-inventing the sewing machine needle
or curing cancer, but am thankful to have an ‘ah-ha!’ moment when it occurs, then move on to the next new thing.

References

  1. Durstewitz, D., et al. (2010) Abrupt transitions between prefrontal neural ensemble states accompany behavioral transitions during rule learning. Neuron, 66, 438-48. PMID: 20471356
  2. Cell Press (2010, May 13). Eureka! Neural evidence for sudden insight. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 17, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/100512125226.htm
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Kari Kenefick

Kari has been a science writer/editor for Promega since 1996. Prior to that she enjoyed working in veterinary microbiology/immunology, and has an M.S. in Bacteriology, U of WI-Madison. Favorite topics include infectious disease, inflammation, aging, exercise, nutrition and personality traits. When not writing, she enjoys training her dogs in agility and obedience. About the practice of writing, as we say in DNA purification, spin, rinse and repeat.

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