Insight: The Aha-Experience
We’ve all had the experience: you’re staring at a problem or puzzle and suddenly it ‘clicks.’ Almost magically, the answer pops into your head, seemingly without any effort or any relation to what you were thinking of before. How does that happen?
It turns out it happens all the time, not always accompanied by a noticeable ‘Eureka!’-type feeling. When you suddenly understand a joke or pun, when you suddenly see the solution to a puzzle or when you suddenly have a burst of creative inspiration, these are all examples of insight. What happens is that you suddenly, seemingly inexplicably, see a problem or situation from a new perspective, often leading to a solution.
Insight has been dubbed divine inspiration, or genius, but science has been looking into this phenomenon for a long time. It’s a tough subject because it’s so intangible and mysterious that it’s hard to define what insight even is. However, over the past decades a lot of progress has been made and the latest technology in brain imaging has given scientists new tools to tackle the problem.
Left and Right Hemispheres
You’ve probably heard about the differences between the left and right halves of your brain. Popular accounts have it that the right half is responsible for creativity, while the left half takes care of analytical, logical thought. This is an exaggeration, but as often is the case, there is some truth at the core.
A neuron, or nerve cell, which is what your brain is made up of, consists of a main body with dendrites, which are used to receive information; and an axon, a long extension of the cell which is used to transport and transfer information to other nerve cells. (See Fig. 1.) It turns out that in the right hemisphere, both the dendrites and the axons are longer and connected to more other neurons than in the left hemisphere. The effect is that the right hemisphere is better at connecting pieces of information that are stored far apart, while the left hemisphere is better at connections between information that is stored close together.
As an example of how this affects things, let’s try a word game. Take the words crab, pine and sauce. Your task is to find a single word that can form a composite word with all three of these.
There are two ways you can go about this. You can just start trying things and find the answer by trial and error. For example, you see the word pine and a close association might be cone to form pinecone. Then you find that this doesn’t work with either crab or sauce and you move on to the next try. This is the analytic approach, which your left hemisphere contributes more to.
On the other hand, maybe you just look at it for a few seconds, and suddenly the answer pops into your head without you trying to create matches one by one. Suddenly you just think of a word and know that it fits with all three. This is insight at work, and your right hemisphere likely played a larger role by casting a wider net for words, not just for words very closely related to crab, pine and sauce.
Another difference between insight and analytic approaches is that insight seems to come out of nowhere. You can’t really control it. That’s because it’s a subconscious process doing the problem solving.
Researchers performed experiments with people who were given word association problems – like the crab, pine, sauce one – and they measured their brain activity. It turns out they could tell from the measurements whether a subject was solving the problem analytically or using insight.
When someone asks you a question or poses you a problem that you need to think about for a moment, you will tend to look away from them or even close your eyes. This is to reduce distractions and allow you to focus on your thoughts. It turns out the brain does something similar when it’s trying to solve a problem with insight. It puts the brain parts that process visual information into a relaxed state, basically meaning that your brain doesn’t pay much attention to the outside world. Instead it turns inwards and runs a bit more freely. It also activates a part of the brain that is used to switch attention between different tasks and lines of thought, making it easier to pick up solutions produced by unconscious processes.
You can see this in Fig. 2. It shows a subject’s alpha waves (which indicate that a part of the brain is relaxed) and gamma waves (which are correlated with consciousness) as they are presented with a problem and solve it with insight. The figure shows that, just before the subject found the solution (indicated by the R) there are more alpha waves. The researchers found that these waves mainly originated from the part of the brain that handles visual information, indicating that the brain was shutting out visual input. This indicates that the brain is subconsciously working on the problem, even if the subject doesn’t notice this. So, sudden insights only appear sudden to the conscious mind; in reality, your brain has silently been looking for a solution!
Right when the solution is found, there is a sudden increase in gamma waves, which is interpreted as the subject becoming consciously aware of the solution their brain has found.
In contrast, when the brain is trying to solve a problem analytically, it is much more focused. It pays attention to the visual input it’s getting about the problem and uses that as a narrower guide. It also suppresses the attention-switching machinery so that your problem solving process isn’t interrupted by distracting thoughts. You then tend to find the solution more gradually and it isn’t such a surprise. In Fig. 3 you see the gamma waves compared between someone finding a solution analytically and someone finding one by insight. You see again the jump in gamma waves as the insightful solution pops into consciousness, but nothing of the sort for the analytical case.
Preparing for Insight
So what determines whether you tackle a problem with insight or analytically? Can you influence this at all?
Firstly, there is simply a difference between individuals. Some people are more inclined towards one than towards the other, and this can also be seen in their brain activity to some extent. Some people have more brain activity in one or the other of their brain hemispheres while they’re at rest, correlated with whether they usually try to solve things analytically or with insight. Insight-inclined people also tend to process visual information more broadly and less focused.
Beyond that, there are some other factors at play. If you’re in a good mood, feeling relaxed, you’re more likely to rely on insight. If, on the other hand, you’re feeling very anxious, this will focus your attention more strongly and make you more attentive to external stimuli, making analytical approaches more likely.
You can also “prime” people to one or the other mode of thinking. For example, researchers found that asking a person to think about the very distant future brought them to a more abstract line of thought (what do you want to be doing in 10 years?) which in turn facilitated insight and creativity. Reversely, if asked about the very near future, people would think about much more concrete matters (groceries, the dishes?) and they would be more inclined to use analytical methods to solve problems.
Researchers have even started experimenting with methods of stimulating certain parts of the brain to try to influence the insight phenomenon. They found that if they stimulated the right hemisphere and inhibited the left hemisphere of someone’s brain, they were more likely to find solutions by insight. It might in the future be possible to literally put on a “thinking cap” to make your brain more disposed to insightful or analytical solutions, depending on your needs!
 Jung-Beeman et al. (2004) Neural Activity When People Solve Verbal Problems with Insight. In: PLoS Biol 2(4): e97. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0020097 (Link)
This post is mostly based on this paper, which is unfortunately behind a paywall:
 Kounios and Beeman (2014) The Cognitive Neuroscience of Insight. In: Annu. Rev. Psychol. 65: 71-93 DOI: 10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115154 (Link)