Eyes predict the moment of realisation

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The eyes give away when an epiphany is about to occur.
Sam Edwards / Getty

Pretty much by definition, no-one knows when an epiphany is about to strike.

No-one except Ohio State University doctoral student James Wei Chen, that is – who has become quite good at predicting when sudden moments of realisation are about to happen in others.

Learning by epiphany is something that happens to almost everyone, but until now studying how the body reacts to an ‘a-ha’ moment has been challenging. Most research into decision-making concentrates on what’s known as reinforcement learning – the kind of knowledge gathered by repeated exposure to situations or stimuli.

Chen and a colleague employed 59 students in an elegant experiment to see what happens when epiphanies occur – and it turns out that an attentive observer can see them coming before they strike.

The volunteers were asked to play a computer-based game that required them to select a number. Each time, an unseen opponent would also choose. Each time, too, someone won, and someone lost.

The game itself was rather complex, and no rules were explained. In effect, the odds of winning were increased by picking a number lower than the one chosen by the opponent – to the point that choosing zero always resulted in a win. 

Using eye-tracking software, Chen set out to see what, if anything, happened on player’s faces in the time leading up to when the penny dropped. As it turned out, plenty did happen.

“We don’t see the epiphany in their choice of numbers, but we see it in their eyes,” Chen says. “Their attention is drawn to zero and they start testing it more and more.”

Co-researcher Ian Krajbich said the realisation, when it arrived, came quickly.

“There’s a sudden change in their behavior. They are choosing other numbers and then all of a sudden they switch to choosing only zero,” he says. “That’s a hallmark of epiphany learning.”

Importantly, though, receiving an epiphany turned out not to be an inevitable consequence of repeated experience. 

In results published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Chen and colleagues reveal that only 42% of volunteers eventually cottoned on and played zero every time. 

Some 37% committed to a number other than zero, and 20% didn’t commit to any specific number at all – a fact that perhaps led the researchers to have an ‘a-ha’ moment of their own.

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