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What happens in your mind when the "lightbulb goes off", or a concept "clicks" for you? Why is there such a threshold for human understanding?

Existing searches: I've searched a good amount for it. "when the light bulb goes off" leads me to English Grammar-related/expression questions, "What’s Happening When Something Clicks?" gives one or two decent articles, like one from xraylistening.com, but doesn't really scientifically answer my question. "Aha moment" just tells me about the feeling. These are just a few of the searches I've done. I've searched, but haven't gotten a satisfactory answer.

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I'm curious about the concept (+1 for the question) but perhaps Google may lead you to general background info (-1 for no research effort). –  BenCole Jan 9 '13 at 21:32
    
@BenCole I've searched a good amount for it... "when the light bulb goes off" leads me to English Grammar-related questions, "What’s Happening When Something Clicks?" gives one or two decent articles, like one from xraylistening.com, but doesn't really scientifically answer my question. "Aha moment" just tells me about the feeling. These are just a few of the searches I've done. So, I have put in some effort, but haven't gotten a satisfactory answer. –  Growler Jan 9 '13 at 21:51
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@Growler try Google Scholar. This was the first result for "aha moment": The Aha! Moment: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Insight –  Jeff Jan 10 '13 at 1:19
    
I also heard about the term "noetic", or "noesis" refer to spontaneous understanding –  Alex Stone Jan 19 '13 at 3:53

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up vote 2 down vote accepted

With the aim of fleshing out Jeff's link, insight is the broad concept you are talking about. More specific terms which focus on the apparent abrupt shift include Eureka effect and Aha! effect.

The Kounios and Beeman (2009) article mentioned by Jeff discusses potential neural models of the Aha moment. Kounios and Beeman state that

Although the experience of insight is sudden and can seem disconnected from the immediately preceding thought, [studies using EEG and fMRI] show that insight is the culmination of a series of brain states and processes operating at different time scales. Elucidation of these precursors suggests interventional opportunities for the facilitation of insight.

More broadly, you ask why there is such a threshold for understanding. One answer is that the phenomena by definition only applies to phenomena that operates that way. Most understanding does not involve an Aha moment. Problems are routine, or they involve searching for an answer by reading materials, or they involve asking someone, or they involve working through a process, and so on. Furthermore, most problems do not have single discrete insights that are going to make a huge difference. Rather, successful performance is the culmination of many smaller tasks. All this is just to say, insight by definition involves a particular dynamic of impasse and then discovery.

Some literature on the Aha moment focuses on problem solvig techniques to both explain the occurrence of the impasse and the insight. For example, problem solvers upon reaching an impasse may start to re-arrange knowledge or engage in various restructuring processes. The literature also discusses incubation processes which in theory may permit more distal knowledge structures to be integrated with the problem.

References

  • Kounios, J., & Beeman, M. (2009). The Aha! Moment The Cognitive Neuroscience of Insight. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(4), 210-216. PDF
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