My Biological Addiction to “Aha Moments”

By Bill O’Brien

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A cast dressed in 1800s clothing in front of a backdrop of Huckleberry Finn.

The cast of Deaf West Theatre’s production of Big River. Photo by Joan Marcus

I stood in the back of the theater and waited for “the Moment.” I knew when it arrived the hair on my arms would stand at attention, my heart would swell, and I would have to fight, hard, to regain control of my breathing. The audience, without fail, would gasp right along with me as we collectively dealt with a flood of responses from across multiple biological systems that seemed be yelling in unison, “Hey! Wake up! Pay attention! This is important! Remember this!”

The Deaf West Theatre production of Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn featured a company of actors that was half hearing and half deaf. The moment described above was a happy accident that occurred during technical rehearsals for the production. The director, Jeff Calhoun, had asked the actors to “hold” while he made a lighting adjustment on stage. He glanced up to see all of them practicing the signs of the climactic song, fully engaged from head to toe in communicating the emotion of the lyrics—but with no voice and no musical accompaniment. The penny dropped. When rehearsals resumed, he restaged the scene so that at the pivotal part of the song, and of the entire play, the band and the vocals suddenly drop out just as Huck (played by one of our deaf actors) rails against heaven in support of his friend Jim. The scene now plays in sudden, total silence—and still rings out loud and clear.

Now, a decade or so after the show closed, I was reminded of the Moment when I was asked to write this piece on how the themes and discoveries included in our recent How Creativity Works in the Brain report resonated with me in my personal life. I am fortunate to be working at the Arts Endowment at a time when it is forwarding efforts to investigate how creativity can expand the horizons of and connections among the arts, science, technology, and the humanities. In this case, we had convened a transdisciplinary working group to interrogate the nature of creativity from across various fields like cognitive psychology, neurobiology, evolutionary biology, education and the arts. I’ve thought a lot about the fascinating themes and ideas that were unearthed in Santa Fe. I therefore thought the assignment would be easy. 

I was wrong.

It turns out that, for me, it’s one thing to objectively ask, “How and why have humans evolved with the biological impulse to create and engage with art?” and a very different thing to ask, “And how does that impulse work on me?”

Contextualizing my “impulses” towards art in this way would imply I am somehow biologically wired to behave or act in response to them regardless of whether or not doing so made rational sense. I’ll admit growing up on a farm in Iowa and imagining I would make a living in the arts made exactly zero rational sense to me in college. I tried to choose a sensible career path but finally surrendered into being the theater major that, deep down, I felt I needed to be. Maybe the impulse was too strong. “The biology made me do it!”

But how do these impulses thrive and persevere across the slings and arrows of an entire life span? I began to wonder if there may be some kind of recurring payback or reward system built into these impulses and their responses that compel us to keep buying records, going to movies, telling stories, breaking into song, and in the most extreme cases, pursuing a life in the arts. 

Then I remembered the Moment, and especially the ritual I had developed for the moment right after The Moment. Getting this show to Broadway was enormously hard work for everyone involved. The commitment and synchronization it took to pull the show off from actors, orchestra, and crew was enormous. And as its producer, the effort of trying to talk people into investing time, resources, and a good deal of money into the idea of deaf people breaking into song on Broadway often left me wondering why we should even keep trying. But then I’d find myself standing again at the back of the theater, waiting for the Moment when a thousand or so of us would succumb to our raging biological response systems in a collective “Aha” that, for a moment, provided us all with a deeper and more resonant understanding of ourselves and each other. Then as I regained command of my body and my senses, I would take a deep breath, exhale, and say to myself, “Yeah, that’s why we do this!”