Don’t you just love them? Those “aha” moments when everything falls into place as if by magic. It can happen when you solve a problem, when you figure out the perpetrator in a whodunit movie, or, best of all, when you get a powerful insight into how to change your life for the better.
There’s a good reason “ahas” feel so good. At the moment of insight, our brains release a surge of energizing chemicals and give off strong gamma-band waves, signals that the brain is literally dancing as it makes new brain-wide connections.
This is learning at its very finest, and we are called to action from the deepest parts of our hearts and minds. In the dramatic clip from the film, The Miracle Worker, posted above, Helen Keller figures out that the random hand movements her teacher has been making were a symbol for water. She instantly got it, and understood that there was a way to communicate beyond the isolation of her dark, silent world.
In The Story of My Life, she described it this way: “Suddenly … somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!”
But what do you think would have happened to Helen Keller if, after that momentous day, she didn’t do anything more? No doubt about it—without repetition and reinforcement, her insight would have soon faded. Instead, as Helen tells it, “I did nothing but explore with my hands and learn the name of every object that I touched; and the more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world.”
Brain scientists put it this way: “what fires together, wires together.” That’s another way of saying “practice makes perfect.”
The energy surge and resulting intense motivation we feel after an “aha” can pass very quickly, and we can soon forget about it, unless our learning “wires together.” That’s why follow up and practice is crucial. We must reinforce our insight with attention and repetition, to help our brains remember and apply our insights in future situations.
Here are some ways to help you use ahas to create lasting change:
1. Write it down. The action of recording your insight will itself help strengthen the brain’s new connections and help you remember it.
2. Return to your insight often. Post-it notes on the mirror and your computer screen really can strengthen your brain’s new connections. Repeatedly bringing your attention to your “aha” will reinforce your learning by strengthening the new connections in your brain.
3. Keep your attention on the solution, not the original problem. If you got an insight into how to stop procrastinating, for example, gently redirect your attention to the insight you got whenever you are tempted to procrastinate, rather than reminding yourself of your challenges with procrastination. Again, this strengthens the brain’s new connections, rather than the old ones.
4. Take easy action. As you move your insight into new, real-world behavior, it’s important to take action in small, easy steps. This will minimize the brain’s stress signals, which will occur if you try to do too much too soon.
5. Be generous with yourself. Remember that you didn’t learn to walk the first 500 times you tried. Allow yourself to try and fail at your new behavior. The very fact that you are trying is enough to re-focus your attention on the solution, and will strengthen your new insight.
With time and patience, you’ll see your “ahas” gradually transform into “no-brainers”—automatic behaviors that hardly take any conscious attention. So have fun, enjoy your ahas and happy learning!