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A Eureka in Base 10

September 24, 2012 — Leave a comment

Recently, I was preparing a short manuscript on some of my recent data. While performing a few simple calculations and keeping track of various tasks with my hands (i.e. counting with my fingers), a realization struck me. Our ten fingers are the foundation for base 10! This is such an obvious concept to most readers, but it is one that took me by surprise. The ten fingers and ten toes then provide a foundation for base 20. This realization is just one of many in my life. They are low-tier eureka moments, one where the concept is not all that difficult to understand, but a flash of insight nonetheless occurs. These are the events in life that lead not to a great discovery, but instead open our minds to another level of understanding.

However, I’d like to talk a little bit about the eureka effect. It has been rumored that Archimedes coined the term when developing the principle that buoyant force of a mass in liquid is equal to the weight of the liquid it displaces, but that probably isn’t true. He probably never uttered the phrase, “eureka.” The basic formula is as follows. First, one reaches a mental block of sorts. We have all been there. After studying for hours or looking at a particular problem for quite awhile, we feel that there is a limit to our knowledge. There is of course some limit in capacity, but we may not have reached a limit in our insight and rarely reach limits of capacity. Then, a sudden moment occurs where one appears on the opposite side of this barrier. This leads to a new level of understanding and answers to problems previously deemed inaccessible. My example of the “base 10” problem wasn’t a classic eureka moment, in that I was not preoccupied with the concept. However, the sudden stroke of insight definitely felt like one.

This moment is not purely metaphysical. Groups studying brain activity with fMRI found sudden bursts of high-frequency activity in the right anterior temporal area of the brain. Furthermore, it was uncovered the sleep enhances these moments by reconstructing memory in a facilitative manner. Not only do numerous people find themselves beneficiaries of such exciting bursts of insight, but groups have themselves been preoccupied with the mechanism behind overcoming preoccupation.