Four Steps to Cultivate Aha-Moments

by | Dec 13, 2015

“Whereof what’s past is prologue,” wrote Shakespeare in The Tempest.

When applied to stable businesses, that statement has a ring of truth. However, for entrepreneurs in emerging industries where new ways to do business or entirely new businesses show up, past is not prologue. For example, Uber created a new way to perform an old business model by merging trends in technology and social change. For entrepreneurial firms who anticipate a future that is different from the past, big data may be big, but it doesn’t necessarily foretell the future. Entrepreneurs need aha-moments that merge trends, technologies and hot topics to create insights about the future and identify opportunity.

Aha-moments seem to magically appear out of the blue, like a bolt of lightning, when a new idea pops into our head. The moment of inspiration may feel like magic but can it be encouraged to happen when needed?

Discoveries in neuroscience indicate that insight may be more of a process than previously thought. At its most basic, aha-moments result when the brain (anterior temporal lobe of the right hemisphere ) integrates distant pieces of information as though disassociated puzzle pieces are assembled into new patterns– if we let it.

Here are four approaches that encourage the brain’s aha-moment.

  1. Be receptive. The brain stores memories from life experiences as though they are files in folders and there are stacks of file folders. But typically only a handful of folders (information we are actively mulling over) in working memory are used. Working memory is highly active during analytic problem-solving. And, there are many more resources stored in the stacks of files in the back of our mind. Imagine those files are managed by a wise librarian. The librarian searches out information from all the files to assemble them in new ways. The librarian is not loud and boisterous but rather quiet and calm. The little voice in our head is familiar but we don’t always pay attention to it. Instead, we rush to the next task that the analytical brain wants to solve. When the librarian nudges that there’s something more here than meets the eye, we can train ourselves to be receptive to and welcome the subtle information when it comes.
  2. Be happy. Experiments show that people who are in a positive mood solve more problems with insight than those in a negative mood. Watching a funny movie helps; anxiety doesn’t. Encourage an aha-moment by doing a favorite happiness-inducing activity whether it’s sharing a joke, walking the dog, or swinging a kid. Happiness does the brain a favor.
  3. Reduce visual distractions. During an aha-moment, energy waves in the brain shift. Visual inputs are quieted so the brain detects and switches attention to subtle internal signals. The unassuming librarian says, “Pssst. Pssst. I put together some great stuff,” but the brain is easily distracted by all that is literally in front of its eyes. Visual stimulations are like Wall Street traders clamoring for attention. The librarian can’t compete. Instead, reduce visual distractions by staring out the window, closing the eyes, or being in a calm environment so the brain makes the switch.
  4. Take a break. Let your mind wander. During a mind wandering moment the brain shifts to internal thoughts rather than external tasks. In a hard-driving business environment, it is difficult to give ourselves permission to take a break but it’s essential for creativity. To coax an aha-moment, do something enjoyable and easy like taking a walk or listening to comforting music. A nap and a good night’s sleep are also great enablers. When you sleep or allow the mind to wander, the Wall Street traders quiet and the librarian assembles new puzzle pieces.


Given the chance, the brain will give birth to new ideas and imaginative approaches. It may not be foolproof, but when an aha-moment is needed these approaches provide a creative edge, particularly when past is not prologue.

Collier, Azurli, Jung-Beeman, Mark, Kounios, John. How Insight Happens: Learning from the Brain. Leadership Insititute, 2008.


Author Byline: Founder and CEO of Blue Fjord Leaders, Shelley Row P.E. CSP, was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 100 leadership speakers. Professional engineer and former senior executive, she was recognized as one of the best minds in advanced traffic management systems.

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