An old journal entry of mine (18/12/2012) explores, rather mournfully, if there are defining moments in one’s life. To (painfully) quote;
“Deep in the abyss it seems that no matter how much one persues and analyses the past, not a single defining moment can be found. Was it this, or that? Then, or there? So, you are at a loss. At which point did it all go wrong? Was it the decisions made? People met? People lost? Were those moments of self-discovery, perhaps ill-timed? Ghosts, voices that will not fade, and scars that will not heal haunt us all. “
This is perhaps the search and waiting for an epiphany; a sudden moment of realization or clarity to set us back on the right path. Epiphany is a broad, and somewhat vague, term. Other words of consideration are insights, clarity, a-ha moments, eureka moments, sudden realisations, revelations, etc. Call them what you will, but they are all very similar.
Epiphany comes from the from the late Greek word epiphaneia; a “manifestation, striking appearance, festival held in commemoration of the appearance of a god at some particular place”. The mystical overtones also play a role in Christianity and images of God. Philosophically, it is the manifestation of a God’s presence, or a great spiritual or mystical revelation.
What, however, is an epiphany in terms of psychology and neuroscience?
Susan D. Clayton, of the American Psychological Society, describes a number of different types of epiphanies. These include;
- Emotional epiphanies
- Environmental epiphanies
- Intellectual epiphanies
- Awaking epiphanies
- Connectedness epiphanies (relating to more mystical and spiritual)
- Realisation epiphanies
- Connections with people
- Environmental, nature and place based epiphanies
- Epiphanies related to travel, physical activities, and objects of interests (tied closely to intellectual epiphanies).
These can be placed into a hierarchy, as most things can be, but I digress. Some interesting statistics come out of this research. 85.2%of respondents record epiphanies as positive experiences, one third describe an element of spirituality and half mention environmental issues.
So there seems to be some similar types of experience we all experience. Like all things in life, it is a vast mosaic of individual, yet interconnected tiles.
Scientists from Radboud University used the popular computer games The Sims 3 to make videos of life-like events, which were then shown to participants in an MRI scanner to monitor their brain activity. This showed that some participants recognized events, and connected them, like a puzzle, to create a new memory of the shown event. Evident by activity in the hippocampus and medial prefrontal cortex, regions of the brain involved in memory formation for personal, autobiographical, events. This study shows the flexibility in recombining memories, old and new, in the brain. It is all about the big picture.
William James, the early 20th century psychologist described moments of clarity as a sudden resolution of the “divided self”; all of a lifetime compressed into a dense singularity. But how is it described in the modern era?
William Miller, professor of psychology and psychology at the University of New Mexico, interviewed 55 people who had experienced sudden insights and life revolutions. He found many of them were not dramatic, say like a car crash, they were very ordinary, like realising something important in the shower. For many though, the feeling seemed to come from something other than themselves, perhaps something divine. Mark Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist and leading figure in creative cognition, gave an experimental group a “remote associations test”, a brain teaser to produce associate leaps of thought, where participants were asked to provide a link between three different words, all whilst hooked up to EEGs to measure the electrical activity of their brains. He found that a couple of seconds before there is conscious insight into the problem, there is a burst of activity in the unconscious brain. The activities compete for attention, and a solution is found, with the conscious brain taking the credit. This has been determined in other studies. The unconscious (idle) brain is actually more active than the brain actively engaging in something. Marcus Raiche, a neuroscientist from Washington University, found that in the resting brain there was a burst of neurogenesis (the growth of new neurons in the brain, replacing old ones), using 20 times the metabolic resources of the conscious brain.
With all this is mind, solving puzzles in a lab is very different to dilemmas in the real world; there is more emotional depth. Beeman found that half his subjects experienced intense psychological pressure prior to an epiphany.
However, some researchers disagree, and think that epiphanies are merely the brain coming to conclusions or simple realisations. The brain is widely considered to be a prediction machine, handling all ideas and feelings similarly, making little models of everything it expects to think, do, and feel, then rapidly recalculates as it’s hit with originality. So, the brain may see an existential epiphany as no different than basic everyday insights; such as how colours on crisp bags denote flavour.
The idle brain may be a great tool for problem solving, but what happens if we are frustrated beyond our control? Is it possible to jump paths to solutions already existing in the brain? Should more attention be put on the conscious brain?
Ailing Chen, a computer scientist at Hebei Chemical & Pharmaceutical College in Shijiazhuang, and her colleagues believe that the hunt for significant decisions should not be left to chance, and relying on an idle brain may not be always necessary., “If some method can replace roaming and speed up the process, why not try it?” Chen thinks algorithmically, as her profession, and says we should think better. She has determined a strategy called “extenics”, meaning the “rules and methods for opening up things.” The goal of extenics is to set rules to resolve as a computer might. This is attacking a problem head-on, and usually a person’s first port of call. We are biased by our beliefs, culture, and environmental – if a solution was there that was outside of our realm, we would not find it.
However, research suggests that cognitive inhibition may occur if too methodically, blocking out all other suggestions, and landing on a blank. This is shown in experiments as were participants are given a brainteaser to solve; some straight away, and some after sleep. The participants who slept performed better. Timing is also critical; stay too long and risk the solution not occurring; take too little time and block other potential solutions. Antonio Damasio, Southern Californian neurobiologist, thinks budding feelings and hunches (somatic markers) are important and tell the brain there is work to be done here. Perhaps intuition is something to be further explored in gaining insight.
Sometimes I think epiphanies and insights only work retrospectively. Does it just look and feel like an epiphany when you look back, ignoring all the little steps taken along the way; much like Archimedes’ eureka moment in the bath; after years of study and thought over his life. Through all we experience, we collect information, and occasionally there is a moment when the brain puts it all together. The brain, as stated before, is a prediction machine; there is a hierarchy of information, modulated by attention and prior experiences – predictions. Cognitive dissonance – an antecedent condition that leads to an activity leading to dissonance reduction (e.g. hunger leads to an activity to reduce hunger) may also be a factor in this discussion. The amount of dissonance felt varies from person to person, and is tied in with values and beliefs. So one may desire to rid themselves of a dissident belief that they feel strongly about, and wallah – epiphany.
Are you accepting, reflecting and keeping in practice with your epiphany?
- com,. “Online Etymology Dictionary”. N.p., 2016. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.
- Radboud University,. “Insight Creates New Memories In The Brain”. N.p., 2016. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.
- Strangeways, Simon. “Your Brain – The Advanced Prediction Machine”. Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit. N.p., 2016. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.
- Colman, Andrew M. A Dictionary Of Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.
- Blackburn, Simon. The Oxford Dictionary Of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Print.