Learning and the Aha Moment

FTOTW [Fine Tastings of the Week]

Dina talks about a wonderful innovation from Nokia that could have a major impact on rural India.  A brilliant 4.5 min video on how to find and pursue your passion by Randy Komisar (via @athick2) [Flashback – can passion can be taught? ].


Today, thanks to a friend,  i had the good fortune to attend the launch event of a learning company called  iDiscoveri. They are trying to revolutionize grade school teaching methods using their XSEED methodology. Some School Leaders, who have tried the XSEED system in their schools,  spoke in glowing and inspiring terms about the system.

As i was waiting for the event to start, i had an interesting conversation with one of the attendees.  We discussed a number of things about training programs in the corporations and also in general about learning.  One question she asked stuck in my mind – do you keep track of learnings and how do you know you have learnt something new?


Later in the evening today, i and Priya Raju had a discussion on this subject. There seem to be 2 broad kinds of learnings – one is what we called the regular or routine kind – say we learn how to cook a dish or to ride a bicycle.

We feel it is the second kind of learning – which are breakthrough learnings that we distinctly remember as learnings. These breakthrough learnings are the ones we usually refer to  by the term “Aha Moment”.

Aha Moment

The question is – when do these Aha Moments occur?  We went over some examples:

1.  We keep thinking about a problem or a question long and hard and all of a sudden something clicks in our brain and we find the answer.  For example, my single arm bangle hypothesis is one such.

2.  While  cooking a dish, sometimes, by mistake, we skip a step  or add the wrong ingredient. But if the dish turns out great,  it results in an  Aha Moment – a new recipe got created.

3. In grade school, we hear a lot about the solar system and how planets move around the sun in an elliptical orbit.  Then when we hear about Pluto’s unusual orbit, it creates an Aha Moment.

4.  A few years back, stereograms became popular.  You had to squint and bring your eyes to a particular position  – lo & behold, you can see a  3D image.  When she first came across these, Priya Raju thought it was a scam because after several tries, she couldn’t see the 3D effect. But one day, she picked up the stereogram and somehow  the eyes came into the correct position and she was able to see the 3D effect. An Aha Moment.

As with most ideas in the world,  there is even a website dedicated to Aha Moments.  The featured Aha Moments on the site are pretty good.


What are your Aha Moments? Are there other categories of Aha Moments that we have not considered?  From the answers, we want to construct a model for how and when these occur. If we are successful in doing that, we can use that in constructing better learning programs.


  1. Quote

    i think most aha moments are created when we find missing pieces of a puzzle or when we find something that completes an existing incomplete thought process. to that effect, i think in most cases, even the need for aha moment is established best by curiosity and inquisitiveness (usually proactive). aha moments are also created top-down way (such as in a classroom training), but it can be hit or miss…

    i am not done…thinking along….

  2. Quote

    Great to know about 2 kinds of learning..especially the aha momets….
    Aha moments alwayz brings an elation 🙂

  3. Quote
    Ila Vilvendhan said September 3, 2009, 5:45 am:

    Aha moments…. nice topic sukumar… I really get it when i find out that i could speak impromptu on some subject which i didnt know that i knew about… There is a feeling cant say as “elation” when you know that some one “CAN” and you were there to bring it out…Thanks for an interesting topic… i keep track of my learnings minimum 3 things that i never knew in any given day… it may be “aha” or not so…

  4. Quote

    Could there be an aha-moment on an incorrect perception?

    For ex: for long it was ‘fairly obvious’ (this profession truly understands shades of grey :)) to psychology students
    that a distant father meant a son that slowly becomes effeminate. This was the freudian version and stood ground for a looong time.

    Recent genetic research indicates that effeminate tendencies show up through genes and they are discovering that it is really the other way. Fathers get truned away and distant because of these qualities that they detect early in their child.

    This can be a dimension (-ve test cases ) to learning scenarios developed. Ensuring getting the aha-moment the way it is desired.

  5. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said September 3, 2009, 8:11 am:

    Thanks. You are absolutely right, when a missing piece of a puzzle or a gap in our knowledge happens, an Aha moment occurs. I am not able to think of very many Aha Moments that have happened to me in the classroom. Have you experienced any in a classroom?

  6. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said September 3, 2009, 8:13 am:

    Thanks Annapoorani. Yes definitely there is some amount of elation associated with Aha Moments. We are trying to find out when Aha Moments occur? Do you have any examples from your life?

  7. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said September 3, 2009, 8:14 am:

    Thanks Ila. It is amazing that you note down the top 3 learnings any given day. Is it possible for you to analyze them and say out of X amount of learnings, how many were Aha Moments? That will be very helpful to this discussion.

  8. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said September 3, 2009, 8:18 am:

    Thanks Surendar. That is very insightful. You are right, when something incorrect you have held for long is explained away by a new thing, it does result in an Aha. And yes, these can be built into the learning programs as -ve test cases. Very interesting.

    By extending that can we say that when we experience a major failure and we figure out how that failure occurred, that would also result in an Aha Moment?

  9. Quote

    Aha!! 😛
    Nice post Sukumar!!
    i think everyone has these Aha moments.
    I remember the first time I handled an SLR, i was positive I would never get a decent picture because if my aperture was right, the shutter speed was wrong, the ASA was not the right number, the picture overexposed etc. And then there was that particular moment when all three (almost) magically came in place and I got a decent image and I went “Aha”!!
    And I got the hang of it 🙂

    Or the times in engineering when you are trying to master a particular concept which has been eluding you for long and the suddenly when you nonchalantly read it again it strikes you like a bolt of lightning. Aha!! 🙂

    Or even as a kid when you are playing with lego blocks or building blocks and suddenly there is a particular combination where you get the perfect house or perfect plane. Aha!!

    Or when you were learning trignometry in school, playing chess, learning to skate, trying to balance on a bicycle etc….

    Oh I have many many many such moments!! 🙂

    I think the distinct feature about all these Aha moments is that they occur when unconsciously you deviate from your normal line of thought and Boom!! It hits you!!

  10. Quote

    Thanks Revs. Yes they seem to occur in everyone’s lives and possibly act as markers for major learnings in our lives. Your examples are excellent.

    “Unconsciously deviating from your line of thought” – very insightful.

    Since you are a great humorist, i ask this question. Have you observed the Aha moment happening in situations when there is humor or laughter or smiling ?

  11. Quote

    I think Aha moment happens when people get a joke you are trying to make or the sarcasm in your voice. Otherwise it becomes a “Duh” moment both for me and for the person as the sarcasm/joke is wasted on them 🙂

    Same is the case with me when I am reading a PG Wodehouse/ Gerald Durrell there are a lot of places when the sarcasm is so subtle I don’t get it till I read it a second time around. And when I get it I go “Ahahahahahahah” 😛

    Not sure if this is what you are asking!!

    You should ask Priya if we are talking about anything even remotely related to humor and sarcasm here!! She is the best!! 🙂

  12. Quote

    Thanks. That is not what i am asking. I agree that the moment when you “get” the joke is a great moment. But i want to know is whether any major/breakthrough learnings have come to you through jokes/humor?

  13. Quote

    One classic is in school days, especially in Math and Chemistry, there is a huge Aha when LHS=RHS 🙂

  14. Quote

    Sukumar – There are other kinds of learning – when we don’t even know we’ve learnt something. Till we get an opportunity to use it, that is.

    For e.g., I was once in a dead-beat project. I was afraid my brain was atrophying. When I moved to another role, I found – to my surprise – that I had picked up some very useful skills while executing the boring project. And I had no idea I had learnt anything.

    Wonder what we can call this kind of learning.

  15. Quote

    That is a good one RK.

  16. Quote

    That is interesting Priya. I guess it depends on how you discovered that you learnt something? Is it just a case of a delayed Aha Moment?

  17. Quote

    Sukumar – I think this is a 3rd kind of learning – not routine, not “Aha”, but – something else. I don’t know what it is, what to call it.

  18. Quote

    Ok. Got it. Thanks Priya. That is very insightful. A 3rd category – unconscious learning.

  19. Quote
    sags (subscribed) said September 3, 2009, 10:06 pm:

    Will a teacher experience the AHA moment ?

    I have personally felt that when you try hard to make someone understand a concept and the moment he/she understands it, It becomes an AHA moment for the teacher and not for the student.

    Take the case when you are explaining a complicated algorithm to a fresh programmer and so on.

  20. Quote

    Interesing observations.

    I experience at “AHA moments” under 3 categories
    1. Damn how did I not see this before?
    2. OO!! wow that works like that ?
    3. Very rarely but does happen – Someone force feeds me bcoz I am thick headed in some aspects.

    I think the 2nd option is more “Serendipity” driven learning.

    I have had more AHA moments after becoming consultant after being a “tech problem solver” for a long time.

    My AHA moments are given to me by my interactions with people. We can experience more AHA moments if follow the Zen Master’s story of “Empty your cup” .

    So I have really started experience more AHA moments as I go with an empty mind for every discussion. And once you get the hang of it it is pretty addictive. But “emptying cup” has a dark side also, if you do it too often you will end up not having anything that is yours. So trick is when switch between “neutral” and “opinionated” mindset during interactions with others.

  21. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said September 4, 2009, 9:51 am:

    Thanks for those wonderful insights Kumaran. “Empty your cup” is profound.

  22. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said September 4, 2009, 9:53 am:

    That is a very interesting perspective. I think that does occur – when you are trying to teach something desperately to get through to the other side, Aha Moments occur. I have experienced that.

  23. Quote
    somasundar said September 4, 2009, 1:54 pm:

    Some AHA moments (http://www.break.com/index/horse-kicks-moron-in-the-face.html
    ) are very painfull indeed.

  24. Quote


    Nice and thought-provoking post. You could have alternatively called the ‘Aha moment’ as the Eureka moment. 🙂

    Even though I had been studying history for some years and geography for a lesser duration, my Aha moment came when I was mulling over the concepts of ‘time’ and ‘space’ and the relationship between them. I have never experienced such an Aha moment in all my learning.

  25. Quote

    Hi All!

    Great community of thinkers here!

    I am the ‘attendee’ referred by Sukumar in the blog above. I am an Education, Learning and Development enthusiast and I have staked a big chunk of my career on this.

    The Aha moment to me is the the precise point in time when an hitherto unknown connection is made, thereby making sense with a whole new perspective.

    To me, this requires a lot of mulling over a stretch of time and a series of fairly persistent ‘whys’ and ‘how comes’ and then one day it strikes, sometimes simply, quietly and elegantly. At other times it is like a wet cowpat slapped to the face 🙂

    It is not precisely the Archimedes kind of Eureka, because we are talking about understanding rather than discovery, but the Eureka ought to happen after very many ‘Aha’s… going by the oft quoted perspiration – inspiration ratio.

    Let us keep this conversation going.. hoping for a few shared ‘aha’ moments. 🙂


  26. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said September 4, 2009, 6:53 pm:

    LOL. We are looking for the other type of Ahas.

  27. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said September 4, 2009, 6:55 pm:

    Thanks. Please see Gayatri’s comment below. Calling them Eureka Moments would make the bar set too high. Eurekas are too rare and getting the type of world changing insight that Archimedes got are very difficult.

    Interesting thought about “Time & Space”.

  28. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said September 4, 2009, 6:56 pm:

    Thanks for dropping by Gayatri and also for the interesting conversation the other day.

    Your definition of an Aha Moment is very apt and precise. Well done.

    Do you think it is possible to produce an Aha Moment in the classroom or any other form of training program (outbound, role plays, elearning etc)?

  29. Quote

    Sukumar, you might even find me lurking hereabouts, quite an interesting group of people here.

    Yes, we need to strive to produce aha moments in the classroom/training room, it should be the design objective.

    Experiential learning is said to provide opportunities for many such ahas. A good facilitator would then make it happen either in the training room or empower the partcipants to discover these ahas themselves.

    Some of the keys to this are:

    Keep the list of learning objectives short.
    Reinforce concepts following a nested circles format.
    Keep the ‘filling’ flexible.
    Challenge the participants, bit by bit.
    Review after an interval.

    It starts with the design and is best executed by a facilitator who is tuned in to the participant group. You are expecting breakthroughs, which means that the process cannot be comfortable. Set expectations accordingly.

    In my experience, shorter interventions over a longer period of time helps the assimilation process. That is: time elapsed should be over 3-4 weeks and time taken would be a few hours a week for the kind of programs that are currently held over 2-3 days.

    Instead of what is known as ‘fill and shut’ type training programs, I am sure you will agree that a set of ‘ahas’ will have a good chance of retention and better still, be used in the intended context, leading to independent ‘ahas’?

    Trust this helps somewhat. 🙂 ( can you tell that I am an opinionated enthusiast?)



  30. Quote

    Thanks Gayatri. Yes, i am also of the view that shorter durations over a longer period of time works better than the current 2-3 programs. Fill & Shut is an interesting analogy.

    It is nice to see people that are passionate (i would use this word instead of “opinionated enthusiast”) especially about learning.

    Look forward to more lurkings from you and some of your wisdom to stir the pot.

  31. Quote

    One of my aha moments recently was not related to any kind of conceptual understanding in thinking. It was more of interpersonal kind.

    Recently, after one of our planning meetings, a member of my team pulled me aside and mentioned that I had used a word that offended her. She went onto explain that I had said that the meeting was ‘not productive’ half way into the session. And her point was that such things are better brought in a more personal 1:1 format.

    That was the ‘aha’ moment for me. This feedback was more powerful than any sensitivity/inter-personal skills training that I have had before and in IBM. Obviously, I did not even realize that I had used the word in the meeting. Re-emphasized that I need to be more careful with my choice of words – atleast in some settings.

  32. Quote

    That is an interesting type of Aha Moment. It is always helpful when some colleague points out some mistakes we make.

  33. Quote

    Great post!

    I’ve had several Aha moments but it has never happened when I was frantically looking for an Aha moment. For instance.. I have a penchant for solving puzzles. The simple & less obvious clues that can unravel the whole mystery strikes me when I travelling in a bus or playing cricket. At the least expected moment. I have wondered many a time how I had overlooked them when I was completely immeresed in the problem, but the reason eludes me.

  34. Quote

    Thanks for the FTOTW. The Nokia experiment is awesome. If an old type keypad phone can spur such a learning opportunity, I am wondering what would be the case if there is a powerful touch based device like iphone.

    Coming to the post, I think there is certainly a model and brilliant spotting of that. We tend to remember the aha moments so well sometimes through out our life.


    Is it possible that Aha Moments stick the subject to the LTM.

  35. Quote

    Thanks. Yes, that happens to all of us, when the brain suddenly figures out the answer.


    Thanks. Yes the Nokia experiment is a great thing.

    Thanks for the link. It is a wonderful article. Sharon Begley is one of my favorite science columnists. yes, it is quite possible that Aha Moments stick it to the LTM which is why we tend to never forget these moments.

  36. Quote
    Nimmy (subscribed) said September 25, 2009, 11:53 am:

    Wow~! Juicy, yummy, topic, this! You folks come up with some really interesting topics! 🙂
    You have me thinking about the Aha moments and their origin. I think you’ve covered a lot of ground in your post and in the discussion later on.

    1. I would definitely add humor to your list like you yourself seem to have pondered over later – in the comments section. There have been plenty of occasions wherein humor had made me realize something awesome…out of the blue! And I’d think it is one of the best ways to meet an Aha moment!

    2. I, personally, have a lot of Aha moments when I am questioned – by someone good at asking fundamental, smart and important questions. The Aha moment may, perhaps, arise because of my desire to provide a sincere and helpful answer and, err, sometimes look as clever as the questioner probably imagines me to be 😉

    3. Collective Aha – Brainstorming!!! As a KMer I cannot forget this as a source of Aha moments…when people get together, think and come up with bits and pieces of their own ultimately leading to a bigger and different-looking piece

  37. Quote
    pointer (subscribed) said September 25, 2009, 11:11 pm:

    see dharumi.blogspot.com ..many points for many intellectual discussions

  38. Quote

    Thanks Nimmy for the kind words. Those are great insights – humor, effective questions, and brainstorming – 3 important areas when Aha Moments occur.

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