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01 April 2011

What those 'Aha!' memories mean

When we suddenly get the answer to a riddle or understand the solution to a problem, we almost feel the light bulb click on in our head. But what happens after the 'Aha!' moment?

When we suddenly get the answer to a riddle or understand the solution to a problem, we can practically feel the light bulb click on in our head. But what happens after the "Aha!" moment? Why do the things we learn through sudden insight tend to stick in our memory?

To investigate how lessons we gain from insight get embedded in our long-term memory, Ludmer, Dudai and Prof Nava Rubin of New York University designed a test with "camouflage images" – photographs that had been systematically degraded until they resembled inkblots. When volunteers first viewed the images, they were hard pressed to identify them.

But after the camouflage was switched with the original, undoctored picture for a second, the subjects experienced an "Aha!" moment – the image now popped out clearly even in the degraded image. Their perceptions, says Ludmer, underwent a sudden change – just as a flash of insight instantly shifts our world view.

To tax their memory of the insightful moment, participants were asked to repeat the exercise with dozens of different images and, in a later repeat session, they were given only the camouflaged images (together with some they hadn't seen before) to identify.

 
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