The neural mechanisms of insight

March 9, 2011

The amygdala plays a key role in the brain during the “ah ha!” moment (“perceptual insight”),  researchers at the Center for Neural Science at New York University have found.

Perceptual insight is where the sudden realization of a solution to a visual puzzle is triggered by an external cue. Specific brain activity that occurs during an “A-ha!” moment may help encode the new information in long-term memory.

Their work appears March 10 in the journal Neuron.

Study participants viewed a real-world image that had been degraded almost beyond recognition. After a few moments the original image was revealed, transforming the previously meaningless arrangement of ink blots to a coherent scene (the “A-ha!”). Memory was tested a week later when participants were shown the degraded image again and asked to recall detailed perceptual information about the original image.

Brain imaging allowed the researchers to capture the neural activity associated with the original moment of insight and relate it to the subsequent fate of the image in memory.

During moments of insight, there was significant activity in the amygdala, a brain structure best known for its role in emotional learning. “We propose that the amygdala plays an important role in signaling to different cortical regions that an internal event of significant neural reorganization has occurred,” concludes Dr. Nava Rubin.

Adapted from materials provided by New York University