The Neuroscience of Insight: For Women and Gender Non-Conforming People

We have images, based on cultural conditioning, of what inventors and disruptors look like. They are invariably white, male, and young. They are usually American.

But the ability of the human brain to have insights, to be creative and innovative, to disrupt and break through, is human. It’s not specific to any race or gender.

In fact, an argument could be made that women, with their penchant for whole brain thinking and their strengths in perceiving relationships and connections, may even have an edge when it comes to insight.

So what is the insight process?

Alpha and Gamma Waves

Psychologists Dr. John Kounios and Dr. Mark Beeman discovered that just before an aha! moment, whether in STEM, business, or art, the brain suddenly has a spike in Alpha band activity. The brain goes really quiet for a moment or two. Then, at the moment of insight itself, there is a burst of gamma waves as the brain suddenly creates multiple new connections. Check out their graph of what’s happening in the brain:

As the gamma waves are moving through the brain, adrenaline and dopamine are released. The lucky person having the insight feels terrific and is inspired to move immediately to action.

This is the process of creativity and innovation, and it is the same process or an inventor coming up with a new product, or a tech professional breaking through to a brilliant idea for a new app, or an artist making a new piece of art. In fact, the insight process is the same even in a parent who has a sudden and new insight into how to help their kids.

The insight process is human, and it is universal.

My Story

As an artist, I have been lucky enough to experience many Aha! moments. Once, when I was writing my solo play, The Physics of Love, it happened on the subway.

In The Physics of Love, I use cosmology and evolution to frame – and explain – a comedic lesbian love story. One day, I was at my computer, struggling to figure out how to blend the science and the story. How could I get the science to really move the story forward, without giving a science lecture? I finally had to set the problem aside to go see a coaching client.

I walked to the subway and got on the train. I read a book on the train, and tried not to think about the challenge in my project. But just before the train pulled into 34th Street Herald Square, in Manhattan, it happened: I stared off into the distance, and then BAM! The structure for the piece leapt, fully realized, into my brain! The structure itself was the solution! I scrambled to capture it all in my notebook, but 34th Street was my stop!! The doors slid open, so I grabbed my bag and notebook and hurried off the train.

But I was pumped up on adrenaline and dopamine, and I didn’t want to lose the insight. So I sat on a bench, right there on the noisy, busy train platform, and scribbled madly in my notebook. I made notes and sketched a few drawings, practically tearing the paper in my enthusiasm!

I solved the problem with the play that day. And thankfully, that day, I wasn’t even late to my appointment!

Of course, not everyone is an artist. So can non-artists also trigger moments of transforming insight? Yes, absolutely. Check out my next blog post for some ideas!

For more on my art, see JenniferJoyOnline.