SNAP: Seizing Your Aha! Moments

SNAP: Seizing Your Aha! Moments

by Katherine Ramsland

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Sudden flashes of inspiration have triggered many discoveries and inventions throughout history. Are such aha! moments merely random, or is there a way to train the brain to harness these seemingly unpredictable creative insights? This fascinating overview of the latest neuroscience findings on spontaneous thought processes, or "snaps," describes how everyone&mdash

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Sudden flashes of inspiration have triggered many discoveries and inventions throughout history. Are such aha! moments merely random, or is there a way to train the brain to harness these seemingly unpredictable creative insights? This fascinating overview of the latest neuroscience findings on spontaneous thought processes, or "snaps," describes how everyone—not just geniuses—can learn to improve the likelihood of their own "eureka" moments by adopting certain rewarding attitudes and habits.

As the author explains, snaps are much more than new ideas. Snaps are insights plus momentum—they instantly compel or snap us toward action. They often occur after ordinary problem solving hits an impasse. We may feel stuck, but while we’re in a quandary, the brain is rebooting. Then, when we least expect it, the solution pops into our heads. She describes the results of numerous scientific experiments studying this phenomenon. She also recounts intriguing stories of people in diverse disciplines who have had a snap experience. Both the research and the stories illustrate that it’s possible to enhance our facility for snap moments by training ourselves to scan, sift, and solve.

In the emerging economy, businesses and individuals need new strategies, and it’s clear that just thinking harder no longer works. People who can snap are often a step ahead: they have a vigilance advantage from exercising brain cells that build mental agility. While snapping is rewarding, fun, and good for improving our mental skills, it’s also much more: people who snap life-changing ideas that affect many others will redirect our future.

Written in an accessible, jargon-free narrative that weaves together the latest research with illuminating stories of innovative people, this book teaches us how to cultivate our own inner epiphanies to gain an edge in our imaginations, our careers, our goals—indeed, in every aspect of our lives.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this entertaining and thought-provoking study, Ramsland (The Forensic Psychology of Criminal Minds) explores the phenomenon of sudden insight—"a dramatic brilliance that floods the mind and clicks into place"—which she calls the "snap." She posits that these seemingly spontaneous leaps are really the result of preparation—Ramsland explains that the process leading up to a "snap" is divided into three parts: "scan," "sift," and "solve." Scanning involves observing one's surroundings and accurately remembering what one has experienced; sifting is allowing the subconscious mind to process and make connections; and the solution arrives when these are combined with the will to succeed and the ability to allow intuition to guide decision-making. Each section contains a myriad of examples of creative invention from people as diverse as Mozart; Percy Spencer, the inventor of the microwave oven; and J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series. Also included are brief reports of neurological studies that indicate that there is unique brain activity that correlates with a snap. Ramsland gives mental exercises to encourage these snaps, along with advice on brainstorming, looking outside of one's discipline for answers, and—most importantly—having a passion for the work at hand. In order to seize your "Aha!" moment, "it just takes ‘seeing more'"—and reading this—"and being ready to roll." (Feb.)
From the Publisher
"I’ve always said intuition is the highest form of knowledge. SNAP shows me why I might be right. This is a fascinating exploration of the mind when it’s in hyperdrive, as illuminating as it is fun to read. [Katherine] Ramsland reveals the science and psychology of the aha! moment in vivid detail, with intriguing examples, while being wise enough to leave room for the consideration of a mystical element to human consciousness. Highly recommended."
—Dean Koontz, Author of What the Night Knows

"Both motivational and informative, SNAP is a treat to read! Katherine Ramsland will singlehandedly increase the number of bright ideas to be born in the coming decade!"
—Shelley Carson, PhD
Author, Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize, Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life

"[O]ne of the most affirmative and encouraging books I’ve ever read. It goes right to the heart of human frustrations, of what gets us stuck when we’re in the midst of problems, and it suggests ways to build momentum and move forward, enlisting the full (and mostly unsuspected) powers of the human mind. . . . [W]ho better to take us on this journey than Ramsland, who has made a career out of teaching us about creativity, about thinking differently? SNAP will help many readers relax into their most powerful selves. This whole book is one big aha! moment."
—John Timpane, Assistant books editor, Philadelphia Inquirer

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Prometheus Books
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6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

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Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2012 Katherine Ramsland
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-464-7

Chapter One


It is not easy to convey, unless one has experienced it, the dramatic feeling of sudden enlightenment that floods the mind when the right idea finally clicks into place. One immediately sees how many previously puzzling facts are neatly explained by the new hypothesis. One could kick oneself for not having the idea earlier, it now seems so obvious. Yet before, everything was in a fog. —Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit


The quote above refers to one of the world's most groundbreaking flash revelations: the structure of the DNA molecule. In 1953, Francis Crick, a British scientist, was working with James Watson, an American, at the University of Cambridge in England. Although biologists knew by the 1940s what comprised DNA, they did not yet know much about its appearance. As Watson and Crick tried to envision it, Watson read chemist Linus Pauling's unpublished paper about DNA. He believed that Linus was incorrect about its structure but that Watson failed to figure out a feasible alternative. A few days later, he saw an X-ray of the DNA crystal. "The instant I saw the picture, my mouth fell open and my pulse raced," he later wrote. The paired helix structure seemed eminently clear. Watson told Crick, and they commenced work on a model. Although they stalled a few times, they talked with colleagues who offered suggestions that helped spark several more revelatory insights. Things fell into place until they had a six-foot model that resembled a twisting ladder. This, they knew, was the appearance of that elusive molecule, DNA. In 1962, they received the Nobel Prize.

Their work demonstrates several important facets of the startling flash of full-bodied enlightenment that "floods the mind." First, from years of immersion in that area of study, they were prepared for it. Second, they persisted. Third, they blended intimate isolation in a lab with collegial cross-fertilization. The dramatic pop of instant, fully formed knowledge that Crick described is a latent function of our brain's processing system. It needs preparation, but it's available to anyone. Although hard work is not required for "snapping," experiencing "snaps" regularly and channeling them for specific purposes does involve training your brain.

Snaps or aha! moments often occur when, faced with ambiguity or a challenge, the brain clicks on something that instantly feels right. To try this process, read the following riddle and see if you can figure it out:

Gerald arrives at his local railway station to catch the Waterloo train, which departs hourly at exactly five minutes past the hour. Thinking he might have just missed it, he looks up at the station clock and sees that the hour and minute hands are both between 1 and 2. He's relieved that he hasn't missed his train. If the clock is correct, how does he know?

If you saw the solution right away, great! But it's often maddeningly elusive. The problem looks so simple that it should be obvious, and yet like other brain twisters, it can thwart your most determined efforts. When you do see it, whether quickly or after considerable effort, the solution will occur as a flash—you just "see" it. The clock's hands are both between the 1 and 2 of the 12, so it's exactly 12:00.

This is commonly called the "aha! moment," the eureka experience, a brainstorm, a flash of genius, or an epiphany. It's a type of perceptual shift that some experience as an incandescent moment. The solution is obvious, even though you might not have found it. Trying to figure out such riddles is like looking for a specific book among many titles on a bookshelf. You know it's there, but you can't see it. Finally, you give up. Later, you go looking for another book, and the first one you originally wanted pops right out. It was there all the time. You just couldn't process it. That's how the brain often works with creative insight. It has resources that seem quite mysterious but are actually the result of how we prepare our minds.

A eureka moment can occur while working alone or during brainstorming sessions in groups. It could burst forth during isolated efforts or after seeing what someone else has done. There are so many applications for this magical link between impasse and enlightenment, whether in sports, business, art, science, industry, design, law enforcement, and even the military. We'll look at quite a few different applications in this book. In fact, the Nobel Prize itself came from a snap.

Alfred Nobel, the discoverer of the formula for dynamite, read a news article in 1888 that had confused him with his recently deceased brother. The reporter referred to Alfred as the "Merchant of Death." This disturbed him. He did not wish to leave such a negative legacy. Pondering a way to be remembered for something good, the solution hit him. He could use the very thing that had inspired that dark moniker; he could apply the fortune that dynamite had given him to offer monetary prizes to people who had made a contribution to benefit the world. He made a will that bequeathed the money and died just a year later. On the third anniversary of his death, the first prizes were distributed in Stockholm, Sweden. The medal features a profile of Nobel.

There are many such stories. It was the remark by William Marston's wife about her blood pressure rising when she got angry or excited that inspired the precursor to the polygraph. The way Italians stood at a bar to drink their espressos, lattes, and cappuccinos inspired the creation of Starbucks. It was an Internet search that Jeff Bezos undertook for his hedge fund employer that inspired him to recognize the Internet itself as a solid investment opportunity. His boss wasn't interested, so he left his job and launched into the sale of books online. Thus, the hugely successful was born. A sudden insight—a feeling of the right idea—triggered each of these ventures.

But let's be clear. This book is about more than just insight. It's about a specific type of aha! that I call a snap, because what I describe is closer to a spark that ignites action than to the mere recognition of the solution to a problem. A snap is insight plus momentum. Once the enlightenment occurs, it begs for action. It launches us forth, as it reportedly did for the renowned mathematician Archimedes.


As the fable goes, in ancient Syracuse, Archimedes exemplified the "eureka" insight. For him, it was utter euphoria, an explosion of excitement that made him oblivious to the fact that he'd forgotten to dress before running through the streets proclaiming, "Eureka!" It was quite pressing—a matter of life and death. Although it's difficult to know if the details of this tale are actually true (and some experts have disputed it), we do know enough about Archimedes to believe that it could be true.

The earliest known account appeared two centuries after his death in 212 BCE, in a work about architecture. The author, Vitruvius, admired Greek geometers, and Archimedes towered above all others. He was a "master of thought," a mathematician, scientist, and inventor. For example, he crystallized the principles of buoyancy, which affected travel by sea or air, and he refined the mechanics of irrigation. The Roman senator Cicero hailed him as a genius beyond what any mere mortal could achieve, and even today Archimedes is considered one of the world's greatest mathematicians. He studied physics, optics, astronomy, geometry, engineering, and the art of warfare. Even the Syracusan king Hieron II reportedly proclaimed that Archimedes "is to be believed in everything he may say."

So, back to the story: The king suspected that his royal crown maker had cheated him. He tasked Archimedes with determining whether a recently crafted gold crown, made to adorn a deity's statue, had been clandestinely mixed with inferior silver (thereby enriching the metal-working con man). However, there was a catch: Archimedes was not allowed to melt the crown or deface it in any manner. Although he was brilliant and knew as much as anyone back then about mathematical calculations and precious metals, he stalled. His very life was on the line, but try as he might to examine the problem from all angles, he failed to find the answer. The metal had been crafted into a series of leaves, and it wasn't clear to Archimedes, the genius, quite how to measure its exact volume.

Reportedly, he worked through every possible solution he could think of. But none was adequate. Then he took a break. Stepping into a full tub one day to take a bath, he caused the water to spill over the edge. He froze. In that moment, he snapped the solution: the volume of water displaced from the tub was equal to the space his body took up. "Eureka!" he shouted. (That's why it's called the eureka moment—meaning, "I found it!") He realized that silver is lighter than gold, so a block of silver equal in weight to a block of gold would be larger and would thus displace more water. Therefore, a mix of silver and gold would displace more water than the same item made of pure gold.

"That one fact," Isaac Asimov wrote, "added to all the chains of reasoning his brain had been working on during the period of relaxation when it was unhampered by the comparative stupidities of voluntary thought, gave Archimedes his answer in one blinding flash of insight."

Using his calculation, Archimedes proved what King Hieron suspected: the goldsmith had cheated him. Thus, Archimedes's brilliant flash has become the touchstone for the blinding sublimity of creative genius: the mind so caught in the illuminated moment it forgets all else in an effort to capture and apply the insight. Look again at the quote by Francis Crick that opens this chapter. He described it perfectly.


Most people believe that aha! moments are whimsical and unpredictable. They have launched some amazing discoveries, the tales of which are entertaining, but they strictly concern people of great achievement or of genius. The great news is this: snaps can happen for anyone, and some people get these incandescent experiences quite often. The reason is simple. They've recognized the enormous potential of a eureka experience and have learned exactly how to prepare for it. That is, we can set up the conditions to spark an Archimedean flash of genius when we need it. And it is not exclusive to geniuses or the highly skilled. You'll meet several people throughout this book who not only experienced a snap and exploited it for great gain but who also articulated the experience well enough to benefit others. Some of these descriptions have assisted neuroscientists, and, thanks to some clever research, we now know a lot about the brain's mechanisms during sudden insight, which helps us to understand both how and why it occurs. Let me put it in simple terms: Approaching a problem that begs for insight most benefits from a type of immersion that forms three distinct processes:

1. scanning the environment

2. sifting through information

3. solving the problem

Scan, sift, solve. Each step has specific nuances, but we'll keep them in mind as we move along. Here's an example of an insight inspired by a problem that produced an intriguing action-based solution. You can see here exactly how "scan, sift, solve" plays out.

At Harvard University's School of Medicine, thanks to the initial brainstorm of Drs. Joel Katz and Shahram Khoshbin, students engage in something that defies a long tradition of teaching. They go not just to a typical classroom for lectures about medical topics; they also go to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. This activity seems far afield from what they're in school to study, so why does Katz have them do it? He had an idea that led to an experiment, which opened up a new approach: visual literacy for doctors.

Medical schools are aware that, according to studies, observational skills among new doctors have declined. A physical exam is essential to making an accurate clinical diagnosis, but medical students seem less equipped these days to make visual assessments with critical thinking. While this sounds alarming, we can blame improved technology. New doctors use more laboratory tests and radiological exams, which can replace the need for clinical observation—but at a great financial cost and some unnecessary risk to patients. Thus, without regular practice, observational skills required to be a proficient doctor remain unpolished. However, visual acumen is still necessary for medical personnel who diagnose and treat patients, so its reported decline is certainly a concern. Doctors must not just look but also see; not just hear but also listen. These two skills are in great decline, as judged by patient surveys. Yet it's one thing to emphasize the importance of such a skill, and quite another to help students to acquire and improve it.

Katz, an associate professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School, was interested in curriculum innovations, so he pondered the challenge. This is the "scan" part. He attuned himself to the issue and wanted to address it. Something from his background assisted: before he'd become an internist at the Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital, he had been a graphic designer, so he exploited this experience to "sift" through what he knew. He understood that, like medical conditions, art appreciation is inherently ambiguous, forcing the observer to rely on an uncertain and incomplete data set to make judgments. Once Katz spotted these similarities, he set to work to develop a unique new curriculum (still sifting). He invited colleagues, including Alexa Miller, curator of education at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College, to help him. The objective was to see if the structured observation of artworks improved apparently unrelated skills in patient care. To test his hunch, Katz and his colleagues devised an experiment that paired Visual Thinking Strategies with diagnostic instruction.

Visual Thinking Strategies are based on a theory by Cambridge researcher Abigail Housen, who worked with Philip Yenawine, director of education at New York's Museum of Modern Art, to assist viewers to better appreciate the meaning of art. They soon realized that the Visual Thinking Strategies helped art viewers to develop critical thinking and cognitive abilities, so this approach was implemented in many more museums. They also introduced it into public school systems and many colleges.

As a curator, Miller was familiar with Visual Thinking Strategies, so it made sense to her to include them as part of Katz's experimental course. Both activities involved cognitive development. So with his medical colleague, Drs. Khoshbin and Sheila Naghshineh, and researchers from Harvard and Brigham and Women's Hospital, Katz developed "Training the Eye: Improving the Art of Diagnosis." It was a ten-week course in which students would meet for two and a half hours every week. The researchers invited students who were in their first or second year of preclinical training to participate, and fifty-six expressed interest. This was enough for an experimental group and a control group, since only two dozen could be accommodated in the class. Twenty-four students (59 percent female, with a mean age of twenty-four) were assigned to the experimental group, and thirty-two similar students acted as controls. Each took a precourse visual skill examination that measured the frequency of accurate observations.

While the controls continued with their education in the typical manner, students in the experimental group went to Boston's Museum of Fine Arts each week to participate in seventy-five-minute exercises of observation, coupled with a lecture about how each exercise related to physical diagnosis. They also kept a journal. During two sessions, they examined volunteer patients who had undiagnosed disorders. The students walked around the museum observing paintings by such artists as Gauguin, Picasso, Pollock, Monet, and Manet. As they stood before Norwegian artist Edvard Munch's The Scream, for example, they considered diverse interpretations of that bald, wide-eyed, shrieking figure on a bridge against its hallucinatory yellow, blue, and orange background. While looking at ancient aboriginal artists, they hypothesized on the role form played in the impact of the art; they then applied this same method to their observation of patients with various breathing disorders. How was the stomach moving? How is the voice generated and projected? What was happening to posture and muscles related to breathing? They also considered how such findings as color, balance, light, symmetry, and texture related to medical topics like dermatology, neurology, and radiology.

No matter which piece of art they observed, they were to offer several possible ideas about it. This exercise helped them to think beyond well-known interpretations, forcing them toward less obvious angles. In addition, the students participated in reading and visual training exercises. In an optional session, they had the opportunity to learn from a professional art teacher how to draw a live human model.


Excerpted from SNAP by KATHERINE RAMSLAND Copyright © 2012 by Katherine Ramsland. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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