Great ideas often develop gradually after studying a problem at length - but not always. Sometimes, an insight hits like a bolt from the blue. For Archimedes, clarity struck while he was taking a bath. For Gustav Mahler, it came as the blades of his oars touched the water. And for Albert Einstein, it emerged while he was talking to a friend. Why do these moments of insight strike so suddenly? Why do they so often come to us when we are focused on something completely unrelated? And when great ideas "come to" us, where do they come from?
In Aha!: The Moments of Insight that Shape Our World, philosopher William B. Irvine, author of A Guide to the Good Life and On Desire, explores these epiphanies, from the minor insights that strike us all daily, to the major realizations that alter the course of history. Focusing on aha moments as they take place in five different domains - religion, morality, science, math, and art - Irvine provides case studies that shed light on the different ways epiphanies happen in the different domains, and on their differing social impact. Along the way, he describes some of the great aha moments in history, from ancient times to the present day.
We like to think that our greatest thoughts are the product of our conscious mind. Irvine demonstrates, though, that it is our unconscious mind that is the source of our most significant insights, and that the role the conscious mind plays in eliciting these insights is to try, unsuccessfully, to solve certain problems. Only if the conscious mind is willing to do this - and thereby experience considerable frustration - is the unconscious mind likely to reward it with a breakthrough insight - that the conscious mind will then take credit for.
Irvine explores not only the neuroscience of aha moments but also their personal and social ramifications. How does a person respond to having a breakthrough insight that goes against a dominant paradigm? And how does the world respond when she shares that insight? Irvine shows that in many cases, what is most remarkable about those who have had the great insights of human history is not their but their courage and perseverance in fighting for the world to accept those insights.
Aha! is a must-read for cognitive scientists, intellectual historians, philosophers, and anyone who has ever been blown away by the ideas that enlighten us when we least expect it.
"Aha! is a remarkable work of insight into how the mind really works. So many of our thoughts and ideas are not the product of deliberative rational computation, but instead seem to bubble up from where we know not, spontaneous creations that we are only now beginning to study. William Irvine spans the spectrum of human cognition in many areas of life, and does so in a highly readable narrative. I had many aha moments myself while reading this book!" --Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American, author of The Believing Brain and The Moral Arc
"In this fascinating, instructive book, William Irvine explores the various conditions and methods by which exceptional people have invited revelation, solved problems, or simply stumbled onto life-changing discoveries and insights. As he traces individuals' paths toward epiphanies large and small, Irvine discusses the roles of cultural environment, genetics, brain function, and more. There is no single formula or blueprint for an 'aha' moment, he suggests, though getting to that moment usually requires an open, curious mind. Aha! is a significant addition to the literature of invention, perception, and creativity." --Ann McCutchan, author of The Muse That Sings
"With wide-ranging erudition and elegant style, Aha! is a fascinating study of the Eureka! phenomenon. In addition to asking how ideas happen, philosopher William B. Irvine delves deeply into how ideas transform us, individually and as a society, analyzing them from a variety of perspectives: psychological, evolutionary, sociological, and even political. Original, thought-provoking, and just a good read, this book is brimming with insights about moments of insight." --Elliot Samuel Paul, philosophy professor at Barnard College, Columbia University, and co-editor of The Philosophy of Creativity
About the Author:
William B. Irvine is Professor of Philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. He describes himself as a twenty-first century Stoic and is author of On Desire: Why We Want What We Want; A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy; and A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt--And Why They Shouldn't.