Aha!: How Mentoring Can Spark New Ideas and Connections


by Jean Rhodes

In the early 1990’s, as an assistant professor, I told an undergraduate that I thought she was so impressive she should consider going into academia. I have no recollection of that random comment, but 15 years later she emailed me to tell me that the moment had somehow helped to crystalize her identity. She is now college professor.

Many of have experienced moments like this when ideas just sort of come together. This even includes a new insight I had while writing this post–more on that later! These aha moments are sudden insight or breakthroughs that helps someone solve a problem, consider a new career path, grasp a concept, or develop a new skill (Mayer, 1992, 1995). It is characterized by an abrupt transition from a lack of clarity, to a clear perception of the solution or way forward (Hebb, 1949). Examples might include a child making new connections about the physical world.

According to cognitive scientists, the neurological basis of aha moments lies in the formation of new connections between disparate ideas or concepts in the brain’s semantic networks (Schilling, 2005). The brain consists of densely clustered regions representing related knowledge, with sparser connections between more distantly related concepts (Steyvers & Tenenbaum, 2002). Aha moments are thought to occur when an atypical association is formed, forging a new “shortcut” between previously disconnected clusters (Schilling, 2005). This rapidly decreases the path length between a broad array of concepts, allowing many previously distant ideas to be integrated. The sudden reorientation and binding of these representations into a coherent new framework produces the distinctive feeling of an insight or breakthrough (Durso et al., 1994). Neuroscientists have documented rapid synchronization of firing across distributed brain regions during aha moments (Schilling, 2005).

Relationships that expose individuals to new ideas increase the likelihood of forging new associations between previously unconnected concepts (Schilling, 2005). And, importantly, even brief encounters can trigger aha moments by introducing new ideas or perspectives that complete a mental representation or overcome a cognitive block (Siefert et al., 1995). A mentor asking an insightful question, praising talents that have not been fully appreciated, or sharing an analogy can restructure a young person’s understanding.

Implications for “Bridging” Social Capital

This highlights the significant potential for “flash mentoring” programs that enable individuals to forge new social connections across diverse networks. By exposing people to perspectives from various fields and backgrounds, these “bridging” ties increase the odds of triggering insightful connections (Burt, 2004). For example, a new acquaintance could make an offhand comment that prompts a young person to see an old problem in a new light (Uzzi & Spiro, 2005). Of course, these relationships on their own are not enough (Schilling, 2005)– high-quality education, equity, resources, etc remain essential to developing the robust knowledge networks that are primed for insight.

Flash mentoring programs (e.g., Step Up Digital Community) work to connect young people to a network of bridging ties, increasing the likelihood of experiencing powerful aha moments (Burt, 2004).

So here’s the aha moment: New social connections operate like the new neural pathways – providing social shortcuts that rapidly bring together previously disparate ideas, spur innovation and open doors to new identities and opportunities.

Implications for Mentors

Mentors can create these aha or “lightbulb moments” for young people by fostering an environment that encourages curiosity, exploration, and hands-on learning experiences. Here are some strategies that can help facilitate these insightful moments:

1. Encourage questioning and critical thinking: Ask thought-provoking questions that challenge young people to think deeply, analyze information from multiple perspectives, and make connections between ideas.

2. Provide experiential learning opportunities: Engage young people in hands-on activities, writing projects, or mock interviews, etc that allow them to apply concepts in real-world contexts. These experiences can help abstract ideas become more concrete and meaningful.

3. Use storytelling and real-life examples: Share personal stories, case studies, or examples from current events that relate to the topic being studied. These relatable narratives can help young people make connections and gain deeper insights.

4. Leverage technology: Incorporate technology, like MentorPRO’s Flash Mentoring platform, which can facilitate connection, collaboration and personalized learning experiences.


Burt, R. S. (2004). Structural holes and good ideas. American Journal of Sociology, 110(2), 349-399. https://doi.org/10.1086/421787

Durso, F. T., Rea, C. B., & Dayton, T. (1994). Graph-theoretic confirmation of restructuring during insight. Psychological Science, 5(2), 94-97. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.1994.tb00637.x

Schilling, M. A. (2005). A “small-world” network model of cognitive insight. Creativity Research Journal, 17(2-3), 131-154. https://doi.org/10.1080/10400419.2005.9651475

Uzzi, B., & Spiro, J. (2005). Collaboration and creativity: The small world problem. American Journal of Sociology, 111(2), 447-504. https://doi.org/10.1086/432782

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press.