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Insightful ideas can trigger orgasmic brain signals, study finds

Research shows how "aha moments" affect the brain and cause the evolution of creativity.

Maps of high-frequency "gamma" EEG activity on head models.

Credit: Drexel University
  • New psychology study shows that some people have increased brain sensitivity for "aha moments."
  • The researchers scanned brains of participants and noticed orgasm-like signals during insights.
  • The scientists think this evolutionary adaptation drives creation of science and culture.

Coming up with a great insight can cause pleasure similar to an orgasm, according to researchers. The eureka moment triggers neural reward signals that can flood some people with pleasure, suggesting it's an evolutionary adaptation that fuels the growth of creativity.

A recent neuroimaging study from Drexel University discovered that the brain rewards systems of people with higher "reward sensitivity" ratings showed bursts of "gamma" EEG activity when they had creative insights. This signal is similar to those caused by pleasure-inducing experiences like orgasms, great food, or drinks that quench thirst.

In carrying out the study, the scientists employed high-density electroencephalograms (EEGs) to track the brain activity of participants who were solving anagram puzzles. The subjects were required to unscramble letters in order to figure out a hidden word. When they had an aha moment of insight, figuring out the solution, the people would press a button, as EEG captured a snapshot of their brain activity.

Another part of the study included filling out a questionnaire intended to gauge a person's "reward sensitivity," defined by the researchers as "a basic personality trait that reflects the degree to which an individual is generally motivated to gain rewards rather than avoid losing them."

The scientists found that people scoring high on this rubric had very powerful aha moments. Their brain scans showed an extra burst of high-frequency gamma waves in the reward systems' orbitofrontal cortex.

People who scored low on reward sensitivity didn't exhibit such bursts. The researchers wrote that the eureka moments were noticed by them but were "lacking in hedonic content."

This led the study's authors, psychology professor John Kounios and doctoral candidate Yongtaek Oh, to conclude that some might be seeking out activities that can lead to such moments of insights.

"The fact that some people find insight experiences to be highly pleasurable reinforces the notion that insight can be an intrinsic reward for problem solving and comprehension that makes use of the same reward circuitry in the brain that processes rewards from addictive drugs, sugary foods, or love," wrote the psychologists.

While the researchers think that creativity is not necessarily critical to human survival considering that other species managed to survive without it, they see its evolutionary connection.

"The fact that evolution has linked the generation of new ideas and perspectives to the human brain's reward system may explain the proliferation of creativity and the advancement of science and culture," Kounios stated.

You can read the recently published study in journal NeuroImage.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
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Climate change melts Mount Everest's ice, exposing dead bodies of past climbers

Melting ice is turning up bodies on Mt. Everest. This isn't as shocking as you'd think.

Image source: Wikimedia commons
Surprising Science
  • Mt. Everest is the final resting place of about 200 climbers who never made it down.
  • Recent glacial melting, caused by climate change, has made many of the bodies previously hidden by ice and snow visible again.
  • While many bodies are quite visible and well known, others are renowned for being lost for decades.
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Creativity: The science behind the madness

Human brains evolved for creativity. We just have to learn how to access it.

Creativity: The science behind the madness | Rainn Wilson, David Eagleman, Scott ...
  • An all-star cast of Big Thinkers—actors Rainn Wilson and Ethan Hawke; composer Anthony Brandt; neuroscientists David Eagleman, Wendy Suzuki, and Beau Lotto; and psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman—share how they define creativity and explain how our brains uniquely evolved for the phenomenon.
  • According to Eagleman, during evolution there was an increase in space between our brain's input and output that allows information more time to percolate. We also grew a larger prefrontal cortex which "allows us to simulate what ifs, to separate ourselves from our location in space and time and think about possibilities."
  • Scott Barry Kaufman details 3 brain networks involved in creative thinking, and Wendy Suzuki busts the famous left-brain, right-brain myth.

Dinosaur bone? Meteorite? These men's wedding bands are a real break from boredom.

Manly Bands wanted to improve on mens' wedding bands. Mission accomplished.

Sex & Relationships
  • Manly Bands was founded in 2016 to provide better options and customer service in men's wedding bands.
  • Unique materials include antler, dinosaur bones, meteorite, tungsten, and whiskey barrels.
  • The company donates a portion of profits to charity every month.
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Politics & Current Affairs

How #Unity2020 plans to end the two-party system, bring back Andrew Yang

The proposal calls for the American public to draft two candidates to lead the executive branch: one from the center-left, the other from the center-right.

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