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The “Milky Way Brain” and the Neuroscience of Insight

Milky Way Brain

I’m fascinated by the neuroscience of insight.

We’ve all experienced going from not having a clue what the solution is to a vexing problem and then…

You’re in the shower and you get an “aha!” insight—but you don’t just come up with “a” solution to add to a list of possible ones to consider.


You are certain it’s the right solution. And that certainty propels you into the kind of action that just getting an “idea” does not. What’s really interesting to me is how those insights happen in the brain.

I got my own insight into how it works when I heard the founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute, David Rock, give the following analogy explaining the relationship between the size of the brain’s prefrontal cortex (the logical, linear thinking part of the brain) in relation to size of the rest of the brain:

If you think of the size of the prefrontal cortex as being about one meter, cubed, then the rest of the brain is the size of the Milky Way.

Neuroscience research has shown that the prefrontal cortex can really only handle about four separate things at once. More than that and it gets overwhelmed and doesn’t work very well.

(A simple test of that? Just try to quickly add two or three three-digit numbers in your head.)

The prefrontal cortex is like a muscle in this regard. It gets tired with use. That’s because the prefrontal cortex uses up a lot of oxygen and glucose in the brain.

Just like your muscles can’t bench press for 8 hours straight, your prefrontal cortex gets tired and then doesn’t work very effectively after awhile, too. (And in an astonishingly short time period—but that’s a whole other subject.)

But an “aha!” insight solution that we get in the shower is the result of a new neural pathway being created in the Milky Way Brain, not in the prefrontal cortex.

But a new neural pathway is, by definition, weak. It’s new so it’s not well-established and strong yet.

Since it’s weak, we have to have “low signal noise” in our brain in order to be aware of it. We can’t be all freaked out or worried or upset. Because when we are, that’s “high signal noise” in our brain and it drowns out any awareness we might have of a new insight solution.

Which is why so many insights come to us in the shower. Or on walks or long drives. Any time when our brain is relaxed and spinning in neutral. Those are “low signal noise” times.

FocusCatalyst processes are all designed to lower signal noise in your Milky Way Brain and to “seed” it to create new neural pathways so you can have more of those “aha!” insight solutions at will.