Stay up to date on everything mediation!

Subscribe to our free newsletter,
"This Week in Mediation"

Sign Up Now

Already subscribed No subscription today

The Ah-Hah Moment

by Phyllis Pollack
May 2009

From the Blog of Phyllis G. Pollack.

Phyllis  Pollack

       Imagine the following: you have been mediating/negotiating a dispute for hours. While there has been a lot of brainstorming occurring, none of the potential solutions, on closer analysis, work. You have been going back and forth with the other party so much that your senses are dulled and your brain is “fried”. So, you decide to take a break, go outside for some air and perhaps some coffee. While outside, you begin to think or talk to others about other things. In the middle of such distraction, the proverbial “light bulb” goes off. You get a brilliant idea about how to resolve the dispute. When you return to the mediation from your break, you present the idea; the other party thinks it is a great solution and the dispute is resolved. Just like that!

       But is it truly “just like that!”? An article in the April 16, 2009 Science and Technology Section of The Economist entitled “Incognito” presents the concept that our brain arrives at this “ah-hah!” moment before we realize it. According to research to be published in the Journal Of Cognitive Neuroscience by Joydeep Bhattacharya at Goldsmiths’ College in London and Bhavin Sheth at the University of Houston in Texas, “. . .although people are not consciously aware of it, their brains have to be in a certain state for insight to take place. Moreover, that state can be detected electrically several seconds in advance of the “aha!” moment itself.” (Id.)

       So, where exactly does “insight” come from? This is a question that neuroscience is trying to answer, including Drs. Bhattacharya and Sheth. To answer the question, they conducted an experiment, using a brain-teaser, in the hopes that the brain-teaser would mimic “real” insight. More specifically, they asked 18 young adults to try to solve the brain teasers while their brainwaves were being monitored using an EEG or electroencephalograph.

       One brain-teaser was the following:

      “There are three light switches on the ground-floor wall of a three-storey house. Two of the switches do nothing, but one of them controls a bulb on the second floor. When you begin, the bulb is off. You can only make one visit to the second floor. How do you work out which switch is the one that controls the light?” (Id.)

        The researchers gave each volunteer 30 seconds to read the brain-teaser and then 60-90 seconds to solve it. If the volunteer was unable to solve it, a hint appeared. In the example above, the hint was to “turn one switch on for awhile, then turn it off.” (Id.)

       Meanwhile, the EEG recorded the volunteer’s brain-wave pattern. The EGG predicted which volunteers would work it out and which ones would not. Those volunteers who were able to solve the puzzle (i.e. feel the bulb to see if it was hot, besides observing it to see if it was on) had different brainwave activity then those who could not figure it out.  

      “In the right frontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with shifting mental states, there was an increase in high-frequency gamma waves . . . . Moreover, the difference was noticeable up to eight seconds before the volunteer realized he had found the solution.” (Id.)

         In short, the “light bulb” moment occurs several seconds (perhaps even up to ten seconds) before we are consciously aware of it. (Id.) This “ah-hah!” moment originates in our unconscious and only several seconds later is it transferred to our conscious thought process so that we realize we have “figured out” the answer.

       So to resolve disputes, we should not depend on our conscious thought process because this is not where or how problems get solved. Rather, we need to let our unconscious process “things” and deliver the “answer” (aka “transformational thought” (Id.))  to our consciousness once it has figured it out! 

        The morale: do not consciously work so hard to resolve a dispute. Let yourself get distracted so that the unconscious will take over and figure out the solution for you. So, engage in small talk, take a walk, let your mind wander – you will solve the problem faster this way.  Sometimes, the “indirect” approach is, indeed, the best approach!

       . . . Just something to think about.


Phyllis Pollack with PGP Mediation uses a facilitative, interest-based approach. Her preferred mediation style is facilitative in the belief that the best and most durable resolutions are those achieved by the parties themselves. The parties generally know the business issues and priorities, personalities and obstacles to a successful resolution as well as their own needs better than any mediator or arbitrator. She does not impose her views or make decisions for the parties. Rather, Phyllis assists the parties in creating options that meet the needs and desires of both sides.  When appropriate, visual aids are used in preparing discussions and illustrating possible solutions. On the other hand, she is not averse to being proactive and offering a generous dose of reality, particularly when the process may have stalled due to unrealistic expectations of attorney or client, a failure to focus on needs rather than demands, or when one or more parties need to be reminded of the potential consequences of their failure to reach an agreement.

Email Author

Additional articles by Phyllis Pollack