Understanding ‘Aha!’

insight.jpgTo this day, psychologists understand little about ‘insight’ – that Eureka moment when a long-sought answer suddenly jumps to mind. These “Aha!” experiences range from the trivial – suddenly solving a crossword clue, to the profound – like Kary Mullis’s Nobel-Prize-winning invention of the polymerase chain reaction, the basis of which occurred to him while driving home one day.

According to Edward Bowden and colleagues writing in the latest issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences, insight is achieved via the right-hemisphere (cf. Hack #69 ) which “engages in relatively coarse semantic coding, and is therefore more likely to maintain diffuse activation of alternative meanings, distant associations and solution-relevant concepts”. Unfortunately, by its nature this diffuse activation is often weak and beyond conscious reach of the struggling thinker.

In support of this they’ve shown, for example, that when people are presented with the solution to a problem they couldn’t solve, they’re quicker at reading this solution aloud when it’s presented to their left visual field (right hemisphere) than to their right visual field (left hemisphere). This suggests the right hemisphere had been closer to reaching the solution than the left. Moreover, brain scans of solutions reached by insight revealed more activity in the anterior superior temporal sulcus of the right hemisphere, than did solutions not reached by insight. So, perhaps you should do tomorrow’s Suduko while looking out of the left corner of your eyes!

Bowden’s team believe research in this area has been hampered by psychologists always asking people to try and solve so-called ‘insight problems’ (see (a) at end of post) that can supposedly only be solved through insight. But Bowden’s team say these so-called insight problems can be solved piecemeal fashion (i.e. without insight) and are often too long and difficult to be used in brain-imaging research. They believe insight research will benefit from using lots more examples of a shorter, easier kind of problem (see (b)), more suited to brain imaging and EEG research, and by asking participants to say whether they solved them by insight or by working them through.

One question they pose for future research is: “Is the ‘Aha!’ of self-discovery qualitatively different from the ‘U-Duh!’ of having the solution presented to you?”.

(a) If you have black socks and brown socks in a drawer, mixed in a ratio of 4 to 5, how many socks will you have to take out to make sure that you have a pair of the same colour?

(b) Each of the three words in (i) and (ii) below can form a compound word or two-word phrase with a solution word. (i) Falling, actor, dust; (ii) Manners, round, tennis.

From: Bowden, E.M., Jung-Beeman, M., Fleck, J. & Kounios, J. (2005). New approaches to demystifying insight. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9, 322-328.

One thought on “Understanding ‘Aha!’”

  1. Speaking of Sudoku puzzles, I’ve noticed a certain faint sensation (like going into a “zone”) at those moments when I’m able to glance at a set of 5-8 digits and instantly know which ones are missing. It reminds me of times in high school when I could solve math problems without thinking at all and be right. I never perfectly mastered this trick, mind you, and it happens much less these days (I’m almost 30 now). I wonder which hack that falls under, and if I could rebuild that skill with exerecises.
    I didn’t notice a difference in my Sudoku performance using one eye or the other, BTW.

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