Moments of Epiphany Are Revealed in a Person's Eyes

Just as players in an experimental game figured out how to win, their eyes dilated, indicating an aha moment, according to research at Ohio State University.

Romantics say eyes are windows into the soul. But scientists at Ohio State University (OSU) will tell you a person’s eyes reveal the workings of their mind, too, particularly when struck with an epiphany.

OSU researchers examined 59 undergraduate volunteers as they played a computer game against an unseen opponent. Participants were asked to choose a number displayed on a screen in front of them, ranging from 0 to 10 and arranged in a circle like on a rotary phone. Their opponent would also select a number. The game then generated a 90 percent average of the two numbers and called that a “target number.” Whichever player was closer to the target number won.

Because the average of two numbers is equally close to both numbers, 90 percent of an average will always be closer to the smaller number. So the trick to winning the game was simply to consistently pick the smaller number, in this case: zero. 

As the research subjects played 30 times in a row, an eye-tracker sitting under the computer screen analyzed which numbers they were looking at as they considered their choice. During each round, they would pick a number and then be asked if they would like to commit to that number for the rest of the experiment, which helped the researchers determine if players had figured out how to win the game. After each round, players were informed of which number their opponent chose; the target number; whether they won, lost, or tied; and if they won a monetary prize.

After some trial and error, 42 percent of players had an epiphany at some point during the experiment and committed to playing the number zero. Some 37 percent committed to a number over zero, and 20 percent didn’t commit to any number.

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Those who had an aha moment and figured out how to win the game showed a significant pupil dilation prior to committing to zero. Pupil dilation disappeared after they made their selection.

“They were showing signs of learning before they committed to zero,” said Ian Krajbich, a neuroeconomist and assistant professor at OSU. He added that their actions also showed that “their confidence was not building up over time, but all of a sudden.”

Prior to their aha moment, players didn’t expend additional time looking at the commit button, which would have indicated that they were considering a number, but just weren’t sure yet, Krajbich explained.

Researchers observed that the participants who had an epiphany also spent more time looking at game outcomes and less time looking at their opponent’s choices. “This suggested to us that paying too much attention to others’ choices might keep you from thinking about how the game works and prevent an epiphany,” Krajbich said.

While epiphany learning appears to happen all at one, the study, which was published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences, shows that through eye movements and pupil size, it’s possible to anticipate aha moments.

Krajbich and his team would like to look more directly into people’s brains using tools like functional magnetic resonance imaging to study how the brain implements epiphany learning.

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