National science challenge seeks to get inside your head

Blackboard with a speech bubble and lightbulb
Researchers have teamed up with the ABC to investigate the kind of sudden problem-solving insight that makes people spontaneously exclaim “yes” or “at last” or, indeed, “aha!”

University of Melbourne researchers are conducting a country-wide citizen science project this August to better understand how the human brain works.

Dubbed, The Aha! Challenge, the project aims to investigate the kind of sudden problem-solving insight that makes people spontaneously exclaim “yes” or “at last” or, indeed, “aha!” It is the ABC’s community project for National Science Week.

University of Melbourne psychologist and project lead Simon Cropper said this phenomenon is an unexpected moment of clarity which reveals a solution to a problem.

“It could involve something as small, but useful, as suddenly realising that if you hang your keys in a particular spot you’ll never lose them again – something that seems obvious as soon as the thought strikes you, but which, strangely, had never occurred to you before,” explains Dr Cropper.

The researchers, including fellow Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences academics Margaret Webb and Daniel Little, think that these types of sudden insight – the point at which the penny drops – are very common. However, there hasn’t enough data to prove or disprove the contention.

“We suspect aha moments are universal,” Dr Cropper said. “But are they really? And are they the same for everyone?”

To find out, the scientists have teamed up with the ABC science unit to offer a short set of online brain teasers that take about 15 minutes to complete, designed to elicit an understanding of the range and types of insight experienced by individuals.

For people who want to be more deeply involved, there are also extra surveys and exercises available.

The questions will gently test different types of insight reactions. Once all the information is pooled, the mysterious nature of the ‘aha’ moment may become clearer.

“We know that insight and clarity can come about when you simply reframe a problem,” Dr Cropper said.

“But that doesn’t really answer the question. We’ve all had the experience in which a solution to a problem suddenly becomes apparent, but then when you try to track back, you simply can’t remember how you got there. Hopefully, this citizen science experiment will shed some light on that.”

Linking up with the national broadcaster offers the best chance to attract participants from the widest possible range of backgrounds and locations.

“This amounts to a huge neurological citizen science project,” said ABC science journalist and citizen science producer Kylie Andrews. “It’s a fun and free way for anyone to do their bit for science.”

The results will eventually inform research aimed at improving life for younger and older Australians.

“A better understanding of aha moments will help educators plan more stimulating lessons, especially in maths,” Dr Cropper said. “There is also great interest in learning how to induce such moments as a potential way of helping older folk keep their brains active.”

The Aha! Challenge is the online science project for National Science Week 2019, undertaken by ABC Science with funding through the Australian Government’s Inspiring Australia strategy.