Positively an AHA Moment!

Why positive moods produce insights – by Patricia Riddell


While some new insights evolve out of careful and considered planning, many arrive suddenly from a pure, new inspiration – a Eureka moment!  Instantly, you know that the solution will work, and you can start to plan your new approach.

Wouldn’t it be great to know what is happening in your brain when you produce this inspirational new thought?  Might this understanding allow you to put yourself and colleagues in the right place and state for new insights to happen more often?

Insights occur when people put together ideas that are only loosely associated in their heads.  This is hard work most of the time since our brains are designed to put together the ideas that are most strongly associated.

So, in order to have insight, we have to inhibit these strong associations so that the weaker associations can come to our attention.

Another way of thinking about this is that insight happens not when we are focused intently on a solution, but when we are allowing our focus of attention to drift beyond the problem at hand.

Recently, scientists have shown that people who are in positive moods solve more problems, and are more likely to solve these problems using insight, than people who are less positive or anxious.  I guess you don’t have to be a scientist to have predicted this!

Beyond this, however, scientists are beginning to work out why positive moods are conducive to producing insights.

Participants are asked to solve compound remote associate problems where they are given three words (e.g. tooth, potato and heart) and asked to think of a single word that can be used in conjunction with each of the three words. If the participant solves this problem, they are then asked whether they had to work at a solution by trial and error (cognitive problem solving) or whether they came up with the answer suddenly and just knew it was right (insightful problem solving).

What researchers found is that an area of the brain – the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex – is more highly activated both when we are in a positive mood, AND just before we solve problems using insightful but not cognitive processes.


Why is this part of the brain so important?


One function of this area is to inhibit our strong, learnt, habitual responses to typical situations, allowing those more indirect responses to come to attention – exactly what we need to be more insightful.  Another thing this brain area does is to take note of our emotional response to events – with higher activity when we are happy.  These two separate functions just happen to be controlled by the same area of the brain.

So, positive mood does not directly cause you to be insightful.  Instead, anything that activates the area of your brain which inhibits your habitual responses helps you to be more insightful – and this includes being happy!

Call to Action


  • Come up with a few more ideas that would allow you to focus more widely on a problem – anything that stops you going back to your habitual ways of thinking and that puts you in a great mood.
  • Think of some situations in which insightful solutions would help you move forward
  • Put the two together and see what new ideas emerge
  • Let us know what you find!

About Patricia Riddell


Patricia Riddell D.Phil., C.Psychol., C.Sci.  is our resident Professor of Applied Neuroscience (based in Woolhampton, Berkshire, United Kingdom).

She received a BSc from the University of Glasgow, an MSc at Imperial College and a doctorate from the University of Oxford. She is a Chartered Psychologist, Chartered Scientist and a member of the BPS SIG in Coaching. She has also completed a Professional Certificate in Coaching at Henley Business School.

One of her main research interests is the ways in which neuroscience can be applied in the business world, supporting and extending our understanding of human behaviour. The current revolution in our understanding of the neuroscience underlying the complexities of human behaviour provides an opportunity to use our brains better. Therefore, Patricia’s unique combination of academic and business skills allows her to create neuroscience solutions that help individuals and organisations to improve performance.