How to encourage ‘Aha! moments’

by | Jul 1, 2018 | Mindfulness

Relaxation is fundamental part of staying healthy, but did you know it can encourage ‘Aha! moments too?’ Robert Sternberg, American psychologist, psychometrician and professor of Human Development at Cornell University and his team define Aha! moments as “insight is a sudden comprehension—colloquially called the Aha! moment [or the Eureka effect]—that can result in a new interpretation of a situation and that can point to the solution to a problem (Sternberg & Davidson, 1995).” So focusing on doing things that make you feel at ease may be a real counterpart to being driven and there is a growing body of research that suggests it may be a key element of sudden break throughs and Aha! moments.  

How does it work?

Nick Stockton writes in his piece entitled, What’s up with that: Your Best Thinking Seems to Happen in the Shower,  “It turns out that aimless engagement, [not to be confused with an aimlessly wondering mind,] is a great catalyst for free association.” He goes on the say that from a place of relaxation, we arrive at solutions to the most complex problems. That’s why you remember the name you had forgotten, suddenly come up with a solution for a problem, or remember where you put the keys while you’re in the shower or in my case I came up with an entire blog post while walking the dog —because often solutions and Aha! moments come when we are relaxed. 

I’ve just returned home from an jam packed few months that included a personal development workshop, a 14-day juice detox, followed by a 5-day silent retreat. It was a very intense, but planned three weeks that coincided with a mission Sébastien was on in the Congo for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctor’s Without Borders). What wasn’t planned was the 2-week vacation that followed. Sébastien received some comp time for his mission in African that he had to use by the end of June. So off we went!

While not expected, that two weeks provided me with the time I needed to integrate all I learned and experienced over the weeks just before our trip. Taking long hikes in foothills, walking on the beaches and wandering through ancient castles in the South of France made it easy to connect with what I was feeling, to know what I truly know and, yes, to hear what was going on in my head. I even had a few Aha! moments of my own. But both my practice and my life taught me that taking time to really appreciate what makes you feel good is never to be taken for grated, especially when we return home confronted with our daily routines and habits. 

Prime the pump of ordinary moments

So today, I walked Samantha and Zachary with the specific intent of letting them just be dogs, stopping, sniffing, peeing and while letting them set the pace for our walk, I used the time to really pay attention to my present moment experience: the sites, sounds, smells. Everything. Presence primes the pump of the mind for Aha! moments, too. 

The pups and me took a route that we’ve taken a thousand times. But walking with intention, today was just that little bit more special. The colors of the blooms were that much more vibrant, the breeze on my skin was somehow softer and the trees that line the lanes in my neighborhood were just that much more generous in their giving of shade. As I walked in the early morning dappled sunlight, in what for all practical purposes was quite an ordinary day, I was reminded that being at peace doesn’t have to wait for that extraordinary moment. Being present fashions its own perfect moments out of ordinary ones.

“Being at peace doesn’t have to wait for that extraordinary moment. Being present fashions its own perfect moments out of ordinary ones.”

—Pamela J. Alexander

Unsurprisingly it was on that walk that all these words sprang forth. So again my own experience proved, as it has in hundreds of other situations—from boardrooms to classrooms— that being present and at ease with the present moment experience, just as it is, without judgement, should be as much of a priority as ‘getting down to business.’ 

Unfortunately the idea of taking free time still often flies in the face of our western work hard/play hard ethos. Free brain time is not considered productive time. So although scientific evidence explains how this phenomena works and why it is good for us, the idea that free time is not useful is so ingrained that we don’t pay attention to either the science or more importantly our own personal experience both of which points otherwise. We must resist the pressure of aimless doing!

“The whole culture is telling you to hurry, while the art tells you to take your time. Always listen to the art.”

—Junot Diaz 

Encourage Aha! moments

A simple step toward, what I believe is an innate skill, is to do something that makes you feel good every day. Give it your all, with your full attention, engage with that and that alone. There it is, no complicated list of things to do or fancy tricks. And it doesn’t need to be an elaborate something either, just something that makes you smile to yourself will do, like me enjoying the moment walking my dogs. And as I wrote here, to make a habit stick, it’s a good idea to incorporate it into your existing schedule. If you only have five minutes to spare, use that five minutes every day.

“To make a habit stick, it’s a good idea to incorporate it into your existing schedule. If you only have five minutes to spare, use that five minutes every day. It may actually be counterproductive to do otherwise.”

—Pamela J. Alexander 

Emotions are states that can be trained like all of our other muscles. It’s not complicated to build emotional muscle, but it does take practice. Consistency is key. Focusing your attention on the details of your life can be a great and fun first step. That’s why we often hear that happiness is an inside job. Can you add some small thing to your daily schedule that makes you feel good and perhaps prime your pump for Aha! moments?


  1. Misty

    So grateful for this today. Such validation for me. Thank you!!:)

    • Pamela J. Alexander

      Hey there. It makes me happy to hear that this resonated with you! Don’t hesitate to ask questions. I’ll do my best to respond or even write a post in response.


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