What Happens When a Person Has an Epiphany?

By Rhett Jones on at

The entire industry of puzzle gaming is held up on the joy of problem-solving and the endorphin rush that is felt when a player suddenly figures it out. Science knows very little about that brief moment when we all just get it and in a new study, researchers have attempted to gain some insight by watching people have epiphanies.

A new study published yesterday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences outlines how researchers at Ohio State University are attempting to learn more about “epiphany learning.” Most people could outline the broad strokes of how they arrived at an epiphany but that doesn’t really help us understand the millions of little things that lead to that aha moment. The Ohio State researchers are using a combination of eye-tracking and pupil dilation technology to gather objective data.

I’ll let you know up front that the researchers did not come to a momentous epiphanic conclusion about the nature of epiphanies by the end of this one study. Baby steps. But that doesn’t mean their methodology and conclusions aren’t still interesting as hell.

Using a control group of 59 students, the scientists had their subjects play a game. It had to be kind of complicated so that there was something to work out. Basically, two subjects competed against one another by choosing one number from eleven options that were arranged in a circle. The winner was always the person who chose the lowest number, so zero would be the ideal pick.

The students went through 30 rounds, each time with a different opponent. On a turn, they would see the numbers and make a selection. At the end of the round, they would see their selection, their opponents selection, and the correct answer. They would then have the option to stick with that selection for the rest of the study. All the while, an eye-tracker was logging where they were looking while they worked out the problem. Those who chose zero in the midst of the game and decided to stick with it had most likely had their moment of realisation and the researchers could study those brief seconds before it occurred.

“There’s a sudden change in their behaviour. They are choosing other numbers and then all of a sudden they switch to choosing only zero,” co-author of the study Krajbich tells Science Daily. “That’s a hallmark of epiphany learning.”

The researchers found that 42 percent of the students correctly committed to zero, 37 percent committed to the wrong number, and 20 percent never landed on an answer they were certain about.

What was different about the people who experienced an epiphany and correctly understood the puzzle? Primarily, they paid more attention to their own choices than their opponents. Krabjich says, “when your pupil dilates, we see that as evidence that you’re paying close attention and learning.” For the winners, their pupils would dilate as they studied the results after each round. They also spent more time looking at their choice and the correct choice whether they won or lost.

Those who realised zero was the best option also didn’t appear to gradually build up to that choice. Though they did look at zero more often than participants who selected the wrong number, they didn’t increasingly consider the commit button. There was just a moment that they knew, hit commit, and the pupil dilation vanished.

The immediate takeaway is kind of a life lesson from science: “It is better to think about a problem than to simply follow others,” Krajbich says. But there are bound to be more epiphanies as research into this subject continues. [Science Daily, PNAS, PNAS]