National challenge seeks to get inside your head

Researchers set up Australia-wide experiment to explore why and when the pennies drop.

Scientists want to know the things that make you go “aha!”.

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

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

“It’s an unexpected moment of clarity which reveals a solution to a problem,” says University of Melbourne psychologist Simon Cropper, who is driving the challenge with fellow Melbourne academics Margaret Webb and Daniel Little.

“Some ‘aha’ moments are legendary, like when Archimedes sat in the bath and suddenly realised the nature of water displacement, leading him to yell ‘Eureka!’ and run down the street naked,” Cropper explains.

“Most of them aren’t nearly so dramatic, though. They 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.”

The researchers 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,” says Cropper, “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.

You can find it here:

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 phenomenon may become clearer.

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

“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,” says the ABC’s Kylie Andrews. “It’s a fun and free way for anyone with an internet-connected computer 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. And there is 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.

The project kicks off on Tuesday August 6 and is open to people of all ages. To get started, go here.

More about the project

The Aha Challenge comprises a series of online brain teasers that challenge your perceptions.

They involve challenges, based on words, symbols, images and logic, that you have to complete, working against the clock. In most cases, as soon as you’ve entered an answer, you’ll discover whether you were right or wrong, and then be asked to rate your responses. Were you surprised? Were you stuck? Did your solution make you go ‘aha!’?

The challenge is open to people of all ages and requires no specialised knowledge. It’s a fun way to shake up your brain cells, find out about the ways in which you think – and contribute to some serious science at the same time!

Talent available for interview

▪ Dr Simon Cropper, Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, University of Melbourne 

Simon is the co-author of several papers on the psychology of insight. His related areas of academic research include colour vision in healthy ageing, individual differences in perception and the intersection between hallucination and reality.

▪ Dr Maggie Webb, Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, University of Melbourne.

Maggie is a psychologist who has been collaborating – with Dr Cropper and others – on research into the nature of insight since 2016.

▪ Associate Professor Daniel Little, Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences, University of Melbourne. 

Working often in combination with Simon and Maggie, Daniel’s research focuses on the computational modelling of the timing and accuracy of real-time complex decisions in categorisation, concept learning, and recognition memory.

▪ Associate Professor Jason Lodge, School of Education, University of Queensland.

Jason’s research concentrates on the application of the learning sciences to higher education. Specifically, he is interested in the cognitive and emotional factors that influence learning and behaviour and how research can be better used to enhance design for learning, teaching practice and education policy. 

▪ Kylie Andrews, producer, ABC Science.

Kylie is an award-winning producer, editor and journalist. She has created and produced the ABC’s online citizen science project for National Science Week since 2009, and is passionate about creating projects that are simultaneously engaging and scientifically valid.