An aha! moment is a new perception that triggers a new comprehension of how things work, how things fit together, how things make sense, that leads to a new understanding of ourselves and our world – a paradigm shift.
What’s happening in the brain during an aha! moment?
Any experience causes neurons in the brain to fire. Any new experience causes neurons in the brain to fire in new patterns that can become encoded as new learning. (When we’re present, open-minded, engaged; not defended, shut down, numbed out, dissociated, or in denial, which simply slots data from a new experience into an old pattern, reinforcing but not changing anything.) The new learning that gets catalyzed by new experiences can stretch us far beyond either accumulating more facts and assimilating them into already established mental boxes or parking newly encoded learning side by side previously encoded learning. (Our brains are quite capable of accommodating contradictory truths for long periods of time.)
Aha! moments happen when:
1) we become more receptive to, less defended against or denying of, the new learning from new perceptions from new experiences;
[Side bar: Pearl S. Buck says “You can judge your age by the amount of pain you feel when you come in contact with a new idea.” And Louis Cozolino does warn us against the “hardening of the categories” that can come with aging (or defense).]
2) because we’ve cultivated a sense of open-mindedness, curiosity and receptivity;
3) because we’re in a safe enough, positive enough emotional state to activate the innate motivations of play and exploration so that we can take the learning in (encode it) directly from the experience of the moment;
4) that allows the new learning from new perceptions from new experiences to gain enough critical momentum, a tidal wave of energy in the brain, that old templates are “lit up” and dramatically re-wired. A brand new template is encoded – a paradigm is shifted.
Learning is always rebellion. Every bit of new truth discovered is revolutionary to what we believed before. – Margaret Lee Runbeck
Man’s mind stretched by a new idea never regains its original dimensions. Oliver Wendell Holmes.
(This re-wiring is a pro-actively benevolent manifestation of the neural mechanism of deconsolidation-reconsolidation to resolve trauma we explored in the June 2010 e-newsletter The Neuroscience of Resilience, Step 3.)
The aha! – the new understanding of how the world works, how people work, who we are, becomes the new normal. Our views, our rules of operating, are forever changed.
This newsletter explores four modes of learning that can reliably evoke aha! moments and shift even the deepest paradigms of how we undertand ourselves in our world. (See also Exercises below.)
Learning from Experience
Any time we immerse ourselves in another community, another country, another culture, even in the experiential world of another person sitting across a table or desk or next to us on a plane or bus, we are immersing ourselves in a mindset radically different from our own.
When we are present to different sounds and smells, different music, different plumbing (or lack of) different assumptions, different norms and expectations, our own moorings get loosened a bit and we can begin to see things from new angles, new lenses, new filters. If we have a secure enough internal base that we can tolerate the loosening of the moorings without becoming disoriented, and/or if our experiences are contained in the holding environment of a be-friending community, a travel group, internship, volunteer program, we can allow our own mental horizons to expand and embrace more and more experience as part of the richly interwoven fabric of humanity. If our awareness is spacious enough, we can see that – aha! – any way of seeing-doing things is just one way.
I was young enough when I traveled three weeks in pre-joint-venturism-China to experience this relativity of truth and wisdom. Here was a culture already 5,000 years old, so completely different form Western culture in 10,000 ways, that used acupuncture rather than anesthesia to support brain surgery, that could build a 30-story building using bamboo scaffolding. Aha! Any one way is just one way.
All the world is a laboratory to the inquiring mind. Martin H. Fischer
Learning from Role Models, Mentors, Teachers
Our own experiential learning benefits greatly from being meta-processed – having our articulation of our experience reflected back to us, witnessed and validated by other wise living beings. Role models, mentors, teachers, reflect back to us what we haven’t yet seen, articulated or dared to believe about ourselves in our world. They help us hear ourselves think, help us hear our own new learning and wisdom, and make our new aha!, our paradigm shifts, real.
A single conversation with a wise man is better than ten years of study. – Chinese proverb
Role models also help us learn from their experiences, their examples, their stories. Understanding their experiences can even further evoke, guide, shape our own.
You learn more quickly under the guidance of experienced teachers. You waste a lot of time going down blind alleys if you have no one to lead you.
– W. Somerset Maugham
And role models, mentors, teachers, keep asking the astute questions that evoke more aha!s. The environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill asks even diligent recyclers, “When you throw something away, where’s away? There is no “away.” Inquiring into the next level of aha!
Learning from Study
Learning from study certainly can evoke aha! moments. Sylvia Boorstein tells the story of her two grandchildren, Colin and Grace, watching the sun rise early one morning. Colin was far enough ahead in school to comprehend, and impart his knowledge to Grace somewhat sagely, that the sun doesn’t actually “rise.” It’s the rotation of the earth on its axis as it orbits around the sun that makes it seem so. Sylvia says she could see the gears in Grace’s brain working as she struggled to comprehend the same Copernican discovery that had revolutionize the paradigm of man’s place in the cosmos 450 years before. And I was aware, hearing the story, that I was having my own aha! about aha!s.
What’s important about study for evoking aha!s is that the study be focused on the unknown rather than what we already know.
It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known but to question it.
– Jacob Bronowski
The difference between what the most and the least learned people know is inexpressibly trivial in relation to that which is unknown.
Venturing into the unknown with open-mindedness and curiosity is sure to stumble us into new aha!s that revolutionize the brain’s perception of reality and truth.
Education is learning what you didn’t even know you didn’t know.
– Daniel J. Boorstin
Sit down before fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every conceived notion, follow humbly wherever and whatever abysses nature leads you to, or you will learn nothing.
– Thomas Huxley
This is why mistakes can provide as much learning as success, even more. They crack through our assumptions and expectations and require us to see things from an angle, a perspective, different than before. They can create a mini-paradigm shift.
Learning from Teaching
When I teach my Deepening Joy groups or give a dharma talk at Spirit Rock (which I will do again Wednesday, September 8, 9am-11am on “Self-ing”) I put myself in a field of openness, inquiry, exchange that is quite transformative. It isn’t just the creative process of prepping new ideas and new vocabularies, new exercises to evoke new experiences. It’s the exchange of resonance in the moment with other open-minded, open-hearted people that creates a paradigm shift in my brain of what learning can be like, lived in that very moment.
When I teach clinicians about oxytocin and neurochemical regulation of the amygdala and we begin to apply this cutting edge information to difficult clinical cases, we can have the experience of creating new wisdom, new understanding right in that moment, and that shifts the paradigm of how we hold ourselves and our clients in their world.
May your days blaze with aha!s