Aha! Moments Re-Wire the Brain

Aha! Moments Re-Wire the Brain

When I was an undergraduate in the late 1960’s, student protests against the Vietnam War or apartheid or discrimination against minorities, women, gays, were disrupting classes, if not shutting down entire universities. A revolution occurred in learning as students poured out of the classrooms into the streets, into poor communities, into developing countries. The old “normal” mode of learning by quietly taking notes from a professor’s lecture (even the very, very good ones) and regurgitating info unchanged on a test or essay, wasn’t going to cut it anymore. The new “normal” became experiential learning, where our own experience, engaging with life directly, became the vehicle for the aha! moments that would transform our understanding of our selves and our world.

Whether people understand the recent neuroscience that illuminates why experiential learning is such a potent tool for creating aha! moments and re-wiring the brain, or not, this past summer, I’ve seen so many friends and grown children of friends seeking to catalyze those aha! moments by going to Nicaragua to build a school, or to Kenya to teach in a school, or to Peru to perform as clowns where there isn’t yet a building for a school, learning in the direct engagement with other people of shared, lived experiences. (See Resources below for links to internships and volunteer programs).

Even my 10 year old godson Elijah came home last week from his 4-hour/week volunteer job at Playland-not-at-the-Beach (he leads tours, demonstrates games, runs movies, sets up scavenger hunts) saying he’s learning to be responsible, to have stamina doing his jobs, to have patience in dealing with difficult kids (and adults!) and – aha! – that when hard things happen he can talk with the adults about it and work it out.

As Elijah and 49 million other children return to school in the coming weeks, and millions of college students take a break from academia to dig wells, repair homes, or work in orphanages, I want to explore how the aha! moments gained from experiential learning re-wire the brain to support even more aha! moments, leading to genuine healing and awakening. May these reflections and tools be inspiring and useful to you and yours.

REFLECTIONS on Aha! Moments Re-Wire The Brain

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.
-Albert Einstein

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


No matter how one may think himself accomplished, when he sets out to learn a new language, science, or the bicycle, he has entered a new realm as truly as if her were a child newly born into the world.
– Frances Willard

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Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.
– Chinese Proverb

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I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.
– Albert Einstein

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The least of the work of learning is done in the classroom.
– Thomas Merton

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Painful as it may be, a significant emotional event can be the catalyst for choosing a direction that serves us – and those around – more effectively. Look for the learning.
– Louise May Alcott

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Learning is the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies; you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins; you may miss your only love; you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honor trampled in the sewers of based minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.
– Theodore H. White

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You can teach a student a lesson for a day; but if you can teach him to learn by creating curiosity, he will continue the learning process as long as he lives.
– Clay P. Bedford

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Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves. Don’t search for the answers which could not be given to you now because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answers.
– Ranier Maria Rilke


After Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, I organized a teach-in at my university; over 1,000 people came to learn what they could do in response to the riots that had erupted in Chicago just 20 miles away. A local community organizer offered an analogy – if you see a heavy table resting on someone’s foot, you don’t analyze the pressure of the table on the foot; you don’t even have to ask if the person wants the table moved. You see a human being in suffering and distress and you go help move the table. Aha! moment for me: empathy for human suffering tells you what to do even without cognitive knowing.

Years later I tried to help “move the table” by founding Directions, a non-profit organization to help minority high school students in San Francisco find jobs and explore careers. The 5 staff and 130 volunteers served 1,000 students each year, transforming 1,000 mindsets of perception and assumptions by direct, lived experiences.

When you help a student sort out their own priorities by giving them a chance to test things, see for themselves, they grow up right in front of your eyes. By god, you have to grow a little, too.
– Ramon Salazar, electrical engineer

Years later still, I wrote in the April 2009 e-newsletter about a friend’s daughter, UC Berkeley student Amelia Romano, moving the table by taking her harp – and blazing passion to offer young people an alternative to poverty, drugs, violence through music – to her spring semester at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, and from there to teaching students every Sunday at the brand-new-no-buildings-yet Ntonga Music School in the very poor township of Guglethu.

Amelia’s aha! experiences last year inspired her to complete her thesis on the legacy of apartheid in South Africa, graduate from U.C. Berkeley and return to the Ntonga Music School in Gugulethu township this summer as a full-time intern sponsored by the Playing for Change Foundation.

Amelia’s aha! moments this summer include a direct experience of Ufundo, a Xhosa word meaning collective work and responsibility; a 360-degree change of pace from a high-energy college student to the S.L.O.W. rhythms of African musicians jamming together for hours; getting odd but respectful looks as the sole white woman in a black township, recruiting students and teachers by wearing school flyers pinned to her shirt; and in an atmosphere of experimentation, creating a haven of security and creativity for herself, her students and the “family” of the school. http://harpntonga.blogspot.com.


Re-Wiring the Brain Through Aha! Moments

Learning from Experience

We’re simply putting ourselves in the experiential world of another person, community, culture, even for a few moments. We do this vicariously reading a book about, or watching a film about. It’s another experience, and triggers a more integrated process in the brain, to be in that life, in that world, even temporarily. To spend even one night sleeping on a park bench or in a building entryway as a homeless person might. To spend one day negotiating buildings and streets in a wheelchair. To spend even 30 minutes standing as silent and still as a redwood tree.

To appreciate the beauty of a snowflake, it is necessary to stand out in the cold.
– Author unknown

Practicing an exercise like this, consciously and safely, is an opportunity to not only immerse in someone else’s world and shift our paradigms of life from there, but to learn how potent learning from the aha!s of lived experience actually is. (See Resources below.)

Learning From Role Models

We learn by example and by direct experience because there are real limits to the adequacy of verbal instruction.
– Malcolm Gladwell

You may already be blessed with role models, mentors, teachers who reflect your own lived experience back to you in a way that allows you to perceive shifts and new wisdom clearly. Who already, by example, by sharing their stories, by asking the provocative questions, encourage you to venture into your next aha! moment. This is a flavor of studying with rather than studying from. Allow yourself t seek and claim such role models, mentors, teachers for yourself in the coming months. (And e-mail me if you’re stuck.)

Learning from Study

Study your own experiences of learning. Cull through moments of learning for moments of aha! when a new perception, a new understanding opened up in your mind and opened your mind to learning in this way. Set you intention to be present to aha! moments as they occur in the coming week, and study what actually happens in your sense of your self.

Learning from Teaching

You may share so much wisdom in the coming week, teaching a friend how to jump start a dead battery in a car, or your child how to make oatmeal cookies, or your neighbor how to compost their vegetables. Simply notice the energy in you, and the resonance between the two of you, as the knowledge transfers, and you learn what wags the world.


You can google “Volunteer Internships” faster than you can read the sample websites below. There are thousands of opportunities around the world. Asking folks who volunteer or whose children have volunteered is another way to find good leads.