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Eureka, brain makes real mental leaps

Rat studies reveal pattern of neuron firing shifts during aha moments

3:30pm, May 12, 2010

Sometimes when a reporter is thinking about how to start a story, she has one of those aha moments, and clever words are typed.

This is not one of those times. But if it had been, a new study could offer some insight into what happened when that elusive moment of inspiration did occur.

An aha moment comes when neurons in the brain alter their activity all at once, scientists report in the May 13 Neuron. The study is evidence that brain cells act in concert during moments of insight, says study coauthor Daniel Durstewitz, a computational neuroscientist at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

The findings are evidence that the standard model of learning — in which some brain connections strengthen with repeated use and others wither with lack of exercise — doesn’t always apply, says Randy Gallistel, codirector of Rutgers University’s Center for Cognitive Science in New Brunswick, N.J, who was not part of the new study.

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