William B Irvine’s meticulous study is a very well researched and crafted exploration of the phenomena sometimes known as the eureka moment. Exploring a range of religious, moral, scientific, mathematical and artistic epiphanies, Irving conveys some important, distinctions and stages in the unfolding of profound sometimes paradigmatic realizations. Using vivid illustrations, intriguing stories and unusual facts Irving skillfully portrays, the depth, breadth, scope and impact of these life and sometimes era altering experiences.
Furthermore he articulates a very strong case, across all these fields of endeavour that human beings, whatever their discipline or art, forcibly resist the radical change that these phenomena represent as both, an existential challenge and an unsettling disruptive force. Pinpointing this as involving, a narrowness of vision, the evolutionarily embedded need to belong in social groups and the heavily conditioned mindsets and worldviews inculcated by parents, teachers, social and business leaders, plus repeated reinforcing self-indoctrination. The revelatory new visions of the world, of emergent truth whether religious, moral, scientific, artistic or mathematical are almost always heavily resisted.
Using the latest findings of neuroscience combined with a smattering of evolutionary psychology throughout, Irving makes a convincing case that ‘A Ha’ moments are the product of the actively focused and effort made by the individual enquirer’s or explorer’s conscious mind, which after a period of time mysteriously elicits the solution or epiphany somehow summoned and synthesized in the unconscious mind.
The mechanics of these phenomena are poorly understood, however the author cites four potential stages that create the ideal conditions for revelatory insight to occur. These are, Preparation, Incubation, Illumination and Verification, with preparation being the most critical. Without the initial often prodigious preoccupation of the conscious mind with the intended topic or problem, very little illumination is likely to occur. This phase allows the pertinent issue to permeate into the unconscious mind, which at some point, initiates the incubation stage, usually unsolicited, frequently in an inopportune moment when the illumination after days months even years pops out unexpectedly and the process of resolving the issue has begun. Verification in the case of scientists and mathematicians concerns proving the truth of the theorem or insight, or in the case of moral artistic or spiritual insights the social acceptance or otherwise of the new revelation.
Overall I was left disappointed somewhat, by the impact of the book from a personal perspective, the detached third person, ultra rational and analytic authorial standpoint of the book, to me, detracts from the the overall mystery, wonder and life transformative significance of Aha moments. Whilst the author does supplement the text with some personal examples, the academic nature of his writing prohibits a more experiential exploration of the topic. Whilst convincing in terms of explicating the wide ranging cultural and scientific ramifications of the Aha moment in its totality, to me Irving’s highly academic book reduces the topic to a curious phenomena. Having been a seeker and experienced myself of many types of illumination, the author has missed a trick by not expressing a more ethnographic or autobiographical investigation of this fascinating topic.