The Journal

The art and science behind the 'AHA' moment

There’s something that happens in our brains when an idea hits us. Big ideas are the culmination of a tonne of thinking, researching, brainstorming and conceptualizing… but the point at which they arrive in our conscious brain can often feel ’out of the blue’.

The moment our brains “blink”.

In this article, we read about cognitive scientists John Kounios and Mark Beeman who began studying the “aha!” moment – when an idea strikes, or clarity is suddenly found. Through the research, they discovered a dramatic occurrence in the brain right before that moment. Our brains appear to completely shut down to the outside world for a very brief instant. As if we block out every last little bit of external influence and rely only on our internal system to complete the thought, solution or idea. Kounios describes it as a sudden “burst of activity” that can happen at any time.

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This helps explain why those moments often happen when you least expect them: sitting on a beach, in the middle of your commute home, at three in the morning when you might prefer to be sleeping. Isaac Newton apparently figured out his law of gravity in the middle of an apple orchard. He wasn’t pouring over books or forcing the answer out on a blackboard.


So, imagine you’re in an apple orchard when it ‘hits’ you… What happens then? Can you hold onto the thought if you don’t write it down? Can you commit it to memory somehow? Will it be the same if you recall it later, or will your mind have shaped it into something slightly different?

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Research suggests that our long-term memory is close to never-ending, but our short-term memory has the capacity for just a few pieces of information – potentially as few as four. So, not only does committing your breakthrough to paper get it out into the world for you to see, but it also saves it from ending up in the same place as the menu from last night’s dinner, the color of a co-worker’s shoes, or that thing your mum said as she was making you a cup of tea. In other words: at least a little hazy, possibly lost for good.

But there’s more reason to write something down than just for memory’s sake. There is a ritual to it, a momentum. Perhaps even a motivational sense of achievement. Getting ideas onto paper can spark more ideas. More words. More lyrics.

Creative perspectives on capturing inspiration.

Capturing inspiration – just like the ideas themselves – varies greatly from one human to the next. So, we asked four modern creatives what it means to them.

From a product designer

“I love Picasso’s point of view on this: ‘inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’ I need a notebook to bring my thoughts out into the real world. Otherwise it’s no more than a daydream… There is such a connection to a paper surface, the texture. A drawing can be very simple and still hold so much of an idea, a feeling of how a product could be used. And that is one of the most important parts of my designs, defining how it might make a person feel, right there on the paper.” – Hadrien

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From a songwriter

“Unlike a computer, when I hold a pen in my hand, I am free to roam around the page. A song is like a puzzle... the ideas descend upon the page, but rarely in a linear format. Each phrase, every wandering scrap of paper is another hint at what the end result might be. So, when inspiration strikes, I need to act. No clumsy setup, no internet to distract me. Nothing to interrupt the flow. Like Coleridge described about his writing of ‘Kubla Khan’ (minus the opium-fuelled haze), I must catch my dreaming before reality snaps me back. The pen literally falls over the page, creating a momentum that shuttles me on.” – Kris

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From an illustrator

“For anything I make, it all starts in my sketchbook. I’m always daydreaming, or researching things to turn into art. I really have nothing else to do, apart from coming up with new ideas and trying to make them a reality! Some of my sketches are formed with an outcome in mind, while some ideas pop into my head and I’ll make a rough note of the idea to return to later. It’s a real mix of lightbulb moments combined with meditation and trying to get in the creative zone to explore and process the world through drawing. If I don’t record an idea when I think of it, it will be lost. So I entrust it to my sketchbook which is always with me.” – David

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From a business owner

“When a notebook captures my hard-won ideas, it becomes so much more than pulp and ink. It represents a visual history that gives me confidence to go at new ideas, knowing I’ve done this before. At a design conference in Portland in 2016, it was the final session. Zoë Keating had taken the stage, and was interspersing her wonderful cello sound experiments with observations on the creative process. Then it happened – one of her comments around using challenge to get into flow states helped me make a connection between several different frameworks I’d been toying with. Suddenly I was scribbling and sketching in a frenzy, my layered pyramids and venn diagrams spewed onto page after page. When she faded her last note, my pen slowed, then stopped, and I had recorded a deep insight into the progression of creative minds. Thank you Zoë, that was amazing.” – Andy

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Shop our work accessories to help capture inspiration.

Read more about the science behind the ‘aha’ moment here.

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