More than two decades ago when I was in graduate school, pursuing a PhD, I nervously carried a draft proposal of a topic that really excited me to a faculty member whom I looked upon as a potential dissertation advisor. A European with a reasonable command of English she was reputed to be sharp, cold, curt, and fastidious. She was all that and more. She spent no more than about ten minutes with me (she was extremely organized) and during that span, she browsed through my apology for a topic analysis, marked it all over in red ink, and left deep long gashes in it. With each stroke of her pen, my enthusiasm dropped several feet, and by the time I left it must have gone right through the ground and emerged from the other side of the earth. I don't recollect anything she scribbled on the paper other than the following words: "you are scatterbrained".
These sudden insights, they found, are the culmination of an intense and complex series of brain states that require more neural resources than methodical reasoning. People who solve problems through insight generate different patterns of brain waves than those who solve problems analytically. "Your brain is really working quite hard before this moment of insight," says psychologist Mark Wheeler at the University of Pittsburgh. "There is a lot going on behind the scenes."
In fact, our brain may be most actively engaged when our mind is wandering and we've actually lost track of our thoughts, a new brain-scanning study suggests. "Solving a problem with insight is fundamentally different from solving a problem analytically," Dr. Kounios says. "There really are different brain mechanisms involved."
By most measures, we spend about a third of our time daydreaming, yet our brain is unusually active during these seemingly idle moments. Left to its own devices, our brain activates several areas associated with complex problem solving, which researchers had previously assumed were dormant during daydreams. Moreover, it appears to be the only time these areas work in unison."People assumed that when your mind wandered it was empty," says cognitive neuroscientist Kalina Christoff at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, who reported the findings last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. As measured by brain activity, however, "mind wandering is a much more active state than we ever imagined, much more active than during reasoning with a complex problem."