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20151024 Aha!


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The main idea is that human mind works in a very complex way when great many activities occur via interplay between conscious and unconscious parts of human mind resulting in “Aha” moments when after significant conscious effort to accumulate and analyze problem and related data the unconscious part of mind conducts background processing, which generates required solution. Examples of such solutions are provided in multiple areas from religion to math with more or less detailed discussion of how it happened.



Chapter 1: Seeing the Light

This is presentation of a few selected cases of religious revelations. The first one is C.S. Lewis sudden conversion from an atheist into deeply religious Christian. Another, much more consequential case, is Mohammed’s revelation leading to creation of Islam, and finally, Josef Smith’s founding of Mormon religion. All these cases presented as religious Aha moments.

Chapter 2: Vision or Hallucination?

This is discussion of nature of such revelations whether they are visions or hallucinations. Biological foundation for such staff to be hallucinations is pretty solid. The various conditions when human brain undergoing some kind of stress such as lack of oxygen or impact of chemicals derived from mushrooms or drugs can easily produce fully blown and highly convincing mental presentations of anything from aliens to Gabriel. It would also apply to some health and mental conditions such as schizophrenia or epilepsy.

Chapter 3: Other People’s Visions

The most interesting process, however is not that some people come up with grand vision of direct contact with superior powers or god, but rather why and under what conditions such vision become accepted by significant numbers of other people and develops into religion. After all, being omnipotent, god should have no problem communicating with all people in the world, rather than with selected individuals. However it is not the case and any religion starts with one individual who converts some people close to him and then many others join the club attracted by vision and growing power of numbers. Typically the founder of religion gets discarded at this point and much more pragmatic and effective individuals codify it in some standard form as holy book and use it to obtain prestige and power over true believers.




Chapter 4: The Two Kinds of Moral Epiphany.

This part is about another type of Aha moment – moral epiphany. Examples are Gandhi with his sudden rejection of colonialism and racism and Thomas Clarkson who started crusade against slavery in USA. The trigger for Gandhi was direct experience of inferior racial status; while for Clarkson it was intellectual work involved in essay competition for a prize. Author also presents his own moral epiphany that led him to become vegetarian. The main point here is that such epiphany comes as resolution of cognitive dissonance intolerable for some people.

Chapter 5: Moral Feelings and Moral Codes

This chapter is about morality as code of behavior developed in humans based on both their genetics and socialization. Such code makes some actions impossible regardless of circumstances, even if there are no logical or practical reasons for such rejection. Author believes that moral feelings are imbedded deeply in our psyche all the way down to the limbic system. He provides review of a few typical psychological tests demonstrating working of such moral feelings.

Chapter 6: The Problem with Moral Reformers

This chapter is about secondary moral epiphany that pushes individual to try change the world, with the primary being urged to change oneself. Obviously people do not like their morals and/or views challenged so it is no wonder that such moral reformers have a difficult time. Author discusses two challengers to existing views: Socrates in ancient Greece and Christopher Hitchens in our time. Author does not provide analysis of under which conditions such contrarians cease to be just a source of irritation for other people and becomes source of admiration and generate converts to their views, eventually leading to domination of their ideas. My guess would be that whatever nudges contrarian and drives him to rebel also nudges many other people and contrarian’s actions allow other people to free themselves from restrictions by joining the movement. The key here is resonance with subliminal unhappiness of masses. If such resonance exists, the moral change happens in the society. If not, then contrarian just perishes, but not necessarily together with his ideas, which could contaminate other people and become dominant long after original contrarian is gone.




Chapter 7: The Joy of Discovery

This is about joys of scientific discovery type of Aha moment. However this is different from religious or moral discoveries in general acceptance of inevitability of scientific Aha moments, because they represent just expansion of understanding of objectively existing world so such discoveries one way or another would be eventually done regardless of actual individuals doing it.

Chapter 8: On Keeping an Open Mind

Here author again bring idea of cognitive dissonance as driving force of Aha moment, only this time in scientific discoveries. In this particular case accumulation of new facts typically at some point demonstrate inconsistencies in existing paradigm, causing such dissonance to become increasingly intolerable and leading to invention of the new paradigm that successfully resolves the issue.

Chapter 9: Dealing with Rejection

The final chapter of scientific Aha moments deals with rejection of new ideas in science when promoters of such ideas suffer various levels of intensity punishment by establishment ranging from the death in labor camp for not supporting enough soviet biological “science” that was rejecting genetics to not getting tenure in American university for not complying with prevailing opinion of majority of professors. Sometimes innovators can overcome it, but generally according to old saying science progresses from funeral to funeral.



The Aha Moment in Mathematics

Chapter 10: Moments of Pure Insight

Aha moments in mathematics have different nature due to the characteristics of math as purely abstract logical contraction that could not possibly be driven by any authority whatsoever. Mathematical ideas either logical and internally non-contradictory or not, so Aha moments are relatively easily accepted, but at high levels of complexity it is open to delayed discovery of errors in logic and therefore could always be rejected.

Chapter 11: The Magic of Incubation

This is about process of mathematical discovery that contains 4 phases: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. Author discuses all these phases in details demonstrating high levels of complexity for each phase requiring long time, sometime many years to complete.

Chapter 12: The After-Math

This is a review of one particular case of mathematical discovery related to notion of infinity and continuum hypothesis that was analyzed and discussed for nearly a century until it was proved that this hypothesis could not be proved.




Chapter 13: Lots of Little Ahas

This is a number of examples from arts when multiple small Aha moment leads to creation of valuable artifacts. Author compares it with math where logical construction of solution could have esthetical value for mathematicians. The bottom line is that sequential Aha moments in process of art creation are source of happiness for artist regardless of value estimate of this art by others.

Chapter 14: On Managing One’s Muse

This chapter is somewhat technical about methods of getting into the flow when multiple aha moments are generated.

Chapter 15: But Is It Art?

This chapter is looking in more details at interplay between art produced by artists and perception of this art my other people, especially authorities and government. It illustrates it with stories of Monet and Andres Serrano of Piss Chris fame. Author seems to be supportive to idea of government subsidizing art, but somewhat rebel against government persecuting or even killing artists for unacceptable art. He seems to be not completely clear about simple fact that both approaches are being two sides of the same coin – government violence in the first case by robbing bystanders to subsidize artist and in the second case by using violence against against artist.

Conclusion: Food for Thought

The final conclusion is that Aha moments are pretty much represent unique quality of humans that no other animas possess and that these moments are product of interplay between conscious and unconscious processes in human mind.


Ideas presented in this book are quite consistent with my believe that human brain is a complex network of analog computers without any centralized all-controlling unit whatsoever, where the conscious mind is just one of these computers working mainly in areas of communication with other humans, environment modeling, long term planning, and defining high level objectives to achieve. The actual achievement in form of finding solution for series of problems is occurring via mainly unconscious process of activation of multiple semi-independent neural networks (analog computers), which present solution to conscious mind in form ready to use. Since all this processing occur unconsciously it is not easy and requires lots of work and complete immergence into the problem in order to make one’s unconscious part of brain to work hard and eventually produce Aha moment. Finally, I do not agree that Aha moments are differentiate humans from animals. The chimpanzee that just discovered a way to open glass box with banana in it probably experience the same type of brain stimulation and human making new religious, moral, or scientific discovery. The only difference is probably that for humans this discovery becomes permanent addition to species wide database of ideas and knowhow, while for chimp it remains personal with minimal transfer of idea to nearby chimp via direct observation. However I would not exclude possibility that well designed experiment could prove chimp’s ability to transfer new idea via indirect communications, leaving humanity with even less differentiation from our close relatives, than it is commonly perceived now.

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