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Scientists explain why your brain’s Aha! moments occur

One of the many pleasures in life is when you experience an Aha! moment, where you suddenly remember a long-lost piece of information, or figure out the answer to a difficult question. And researchers at Columbia University may have just discovered the biology behind this moment – suggesting that it could be linked to consciousness when information collected by the brain reaches a critical threshold.

The study also postulates that the piercing of the consciousness that occurs in this Aha! moment shares the same underlying brain mechanisms that are involved in making very simple decisions. It’s possible that this research may put us on the path to better understanding the biological foundations of consciousness.

“The vast majority of thoughts circling in our brains happen below the radar of conscious awareness, meaning that even though our brain is processing them, we are not aware,” explains Dr. Michael Shadlen, a principal investigator at Columbia and the paper’s senior author. “How some of that information bubbles to the level of consciousness, however, remains an unsolved mystery. But now, we’ve found a way to observe that moment in real time, and then apply those findings to our understanding of consciousness itself.”

Dr. Shadlen has spent his career attempting to understand how the signals sent through the brain’s billions of cells result in the decisions we make. Even complex emotions and thoughts such as love, grief, and mortality can be essentially boiled down to a series of decisions made by the brain engaging with the outside world.

For their study, the researchers had five participants watch dots on a computer screen that moved like grains of sand blowing in the wind. The subjects were asked what direction the dots were blowing in, and a clock at the center of the screen kept the time. After the dots were finished moving, the participants decided on what direction the dots had been traveling and then asked to decide what time the clock had been at when they became aware of the answer.

The research team incorporated this data with a vast history of previous research on brain mechanisms in decision-making and combined this with a complex mathematical trick in order to validate that the participants’ subjective belief that their decision was made at this time was an accurate reflection of the brain’s decision-making process.

“Essentially, the act of becoming consciously aware of a decision conforms to the same process that the brain goes through to complete a decision, even a simple one – such as whether to turn left or right,” says Dr. Shadlen.

Although this study is just the beginning, it has piqued scientists’ curiosity about the possibility of our most complex thoughts and feelings being definable under biological standards.

“Some people think that the nitty gritty of neuroscience is far from the highfalutin stuff that a philosopher would consider,” says Dr. Shadlen. “But rest assured, explaining these concepts – whether it’s ethics, consciousness anything else – in terms of neuroscience isn’t explaining them away. Instead, I would argue that it is helping to bring the biological study of the brain closer to the philosophical study of the mind.”

By Connor Ertz, Staff Writer

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