Margaret Webb – the eureka moment (#11)


A researcher in cognitive psychology, investigating creativity and insight (if that name doesn’t quite resonate, it’s also known as the aha experience, eureka moment, the penny-drop, light-bulb, and gestalt click – among sundry others). She’s interested in whether individual differences (such as particular personality types, or intelligence) are associated with a tendency towards having insight moments.


Research gate


Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.

Birds dancing with their shadows on a cliff face: The sun was sinking in the Alps, and I was paragliding for the first time since an accident left me earth-bound. The air was smooth, and the shadows stark and becoming yet stronger. A small flock of black birds suddenly erupted from a shadow in the cliff, skimming along the face. The shadows and their proximity create the effect of a mirror that the birds were playing with. It was a truly poetic moment of profound and breathtaking beauty


How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?

Wonder – a strong positive emotion regarding an object, action, or place – often rendering an individual speechless with amazement

Awe – a feeling of profound veneration elicited by a place, object, or person (awe can be positive but also can be inhibitive – e.g., awe of an individual can prevent reaching out to that individual)

Curiosity – an urge to discover


What inspires you to be creative?

Depends on the creativity! As a scientist, I’m inspired by questions that I want answered, but for artistic creativity, I’m inspired most often by nature, and light.


Do you have any ‘rituals’ or an environment that aids your creativity?

Rituals depend on the type of creativity I’m trying to elicit: For scientific creativity (creating research ideas / writing an article), I will make a pot of tea or coffee, and chew a particular type of chewing gum to have the smells and tastes I’ve associated with this type of memory and generation winding around me.

For artistic creativity (drawing/ writing a poem), I prefer to have the sound of rain or fire – if I can be walking in the rain, that’s perfect for a poem, but for drawing it doesn’t quite work. Instead, when drawing, I’ll place the medium I’m using for the day around me, and put aside an hour or three to become absorbed. Tea is more often around me for artistic creativity rather than coffee.


What do you love about magic?

Magic is wonderful – it’s creative, and is able to elicit the joy that one felt as a child at those times of the year (e.g., Christmas, Easter, birthday) when the whole world seems to be putting on a show specifically for you.


What do you think hinders an audience from experiencing wonder when watching a magician?

In order to obtain a sense of wonder, I would guess that an individual has to be engaged, has to be paying attention, to what’s going on. They don’t have to know what’s going on – in fact, I’d also guess that wonder requires not knowing what’s going on.

Given these two possible prerequisites, I’d guess that an audience will not experience wonder when they refuse to, or otherwise cannot, engage in a magician’s performance.

They might refuse to engage, or be unable to engage for the following reasons:

  • They don’t want to know how the trick is done, so don’t watch in case they guess.
  • They think they already know the trick and so don’t engage completely
  • They think magic is a waste of their time – possibly that it’s “stupid” or “silly” – they have not received a sense of wonder about magic in the past, and are thus not interested.

Not experiencing wonder regarding in the first place, even as a child, may be the result of ‘needing’ to know an answer. Not knowing how something is done (so crucial for magic) is thus highly uncomfortable, and a state to be avoided. (To protect themselves from being uncomfortable, an individual will refuse to engage, and perhaps actively avoid, or attempt to prevent, a magician performing.


Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it? 

A child can take ten minutes to walk ten metres because they’re looking at everything and wondering at it – both in terms of asking themselves what creates it and enjoying it for its simple act of being.

Wonder requires engagement – with people, with thoughts, with the world. It also requires fearlessness in terms of the unknown and unknowable. Wonder requires allowing yourself to be overwhelmed with a beautiful thing – whether that is a performance, or a question.

To cultivate wonder? Pay attention and accept emotions fearlessly.


You research the “aha” moment when puzzles are solved. Can you tell me more about this and some of the findings?

The aha experience is as recognisable, and as difficult to define, as wonder. It’s a moment of sudden realisation, or revelation. We recognise this feeling even as children – in cartoons it’s illustrated with a lightbulb appearing over a character’s head, or stars – some sort of illumination – which is also how the aha experience is referred to.

The aha moment is associated with other emotions that are typically considered positive, such as pleasure and relief, as well as emotions that are more multivalent, such as surprise (i.e., some people love surprises and some don’t like them at all).

Aha experiences are associated with two important things in education: (1) better memory for things (you remember things that you learn with an aha experiences better), and (2) motivation (if you have an aha experience when learning something, you want to learn more).

If you’re interested in the neuroscience of (or otherwise what brain areas are associated with) the aha experience, I’m happy to field emails, and recommend articles.


As an educator I’d love to create more “aha” moments for my students, is there a way to structure learning or create environments that would enhance this?

What I’ve found works in a classroom is the following:

Work first on methods to create engagement – as in wonder, you need to be engaged in a problem in order to have an aha experience about that problem.

Find unusual ways to look at things, and teach unusual way to look at things – the more ways that you can find to approach a problem, the more likely someone is to solve unusual problems.

Teach students to question, and to be unafraid of not knowing. The more fearless they are in their questioning, the more they’re able to engage with a topic and experience both aha experiences and wonder.

There has been some research, with university students, into the role of confusion in aha experiences. Students are presented with the information they will be able to understand at the end of a course, with the knowledge that at their current state that information will be both confusing and bewildering for them. Students are told that the confusion is a purposeful feeling, and to read and research on their own. Halfway through the course, there a classroom activity in which students are walked through more basic understanding of the material, and told to explain it to one another. There is a significant leap in understanding arising from this. So I would say that to have more aha experiences, get students to teach each other challenging material. (But teach them under supervision to check they’re teaching the right thing!)


In my experience as a magician I come across people who love puzzles and some who hate them. They find the state of unknowing uncomfortable or scary. How can we be more comfortable with mystery?  

As you note, many people are uncomfortable with mystery – and our primary and secondary education systems train us that there are right and wrong answers to questions. Becoming comfortable with mystery takes practise, it takes asking a lot of questions, and thinking about them, realising that there is no way yet to answer that question, and sitting with that feeling – hopefully that feeling becomes exciting after a while – after all, if all questions were answered, what would we have to discover? What would we have to do? What would we have to live for? All the answers to those are, for me, the same: Nothing!

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