A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience. – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Have you ever struggled with a problem, only to have the answer come to you seemingly out of nowhere?
When flashes of insight strike you like that, more than likely you’ve been hit with the right idea, according to a new study.
A team of researchers recently discovered that sudden insights are often more accurate at solving problems than thinking them through analytically.
John Kounios, PhD, professor in Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences and the co-author of the book “The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight and the Brain,” elaborates:
Conscious, analytic thinking can sometimes be rushed or sloppy, leading to mistakes while solving a problem. However, insight is unconscious and automatic – it can’t be rushed. When the process runs to completion in its own time and all the dots are connected unconsciously, the solution pops into awareness as an Aha! moment. This means that when a really creative, breakthrough idea is needed, it’s often best to wait for the insight rather than settling for an idea that resulted from analytical thinking.
Experiments with four different types of timed puzzles showed that answers that occurred as sudden insights (also described as Aha! moments) were more likely to be correct. And, people who tended to have more of these insights were also more likely to miss the deadline rather than provide an incorrect, but in-time, answer. Those who responded based on analytical thought (described as being an idea that was worked on consciously and deliberately) were more likely to provide an answer by the deadline, but these last-minute answers were often wrong.
Each experiment used one group of distinct puzzles: one experiment used only linguistic puzzles, another used strictly visual ones, and two used puzzles with both linguistic and visual elements.
For example, one type of linguistic puzzle showed three different words: “Crab,” “pine,” and “sauce.” The experiment participant was then asked to provide a word that could be used to make each of the three into a compound word (the answer is “apple” in this example). The visual puzzle provided a scrambled image and required the participant to identify the object they thought the puzzle depicted.
Each experiment consisted of between 50 and 180 puzzles. Participants were given 15 or 16 seconds to respond after seeing a puzzle. As soon as the participant thought they solved the puzzle, they pressed a button and provided their answer. Then they reported whether the solution came through insight or analytical thinking.
Overwhelmingly, responses derived from insight proved correct. In the linguistic puzzles, 94 percent of the responses classified as insight were correct, compared to 78 percent for the analytical thinking responses. For the visual puzzles, 78 percent of the responses were correct, versus 42 percent for the analytic responses.
When taking timing into account, answers given during the last five seconds before the deadline had a lower probability of being correct. For the linguistic puzzles, 34 percent of the responses were wrong, compared to 10 percent of the responses being wrong for quicker answers; for the visual puzzles, 72 percent of the answers given during the last five seconds were wrong.
It is fascinating to note that the majority of those late wrong answers were based on analytical thinking. In one of the experiments, the number of incorrect responses related to analytical thinking recorded in the last five seconds was more than double the number of incorrect responses recorded as insights.
Those numbers for the last five seconds pointed to some participants guessing at the puzzles’ solutions. These participants were analytical thinkers.
Deadlines create a subtle – or not so subtle – background feeling of anxiety. Anxiety shifts one’s thinking from insightful to analytic. Deadlines are helpful to keep people on task, but if creative ideas are needed, it’s better to have a soft target date. A drop-dead deadline will get results, but they are less likely to be creative results.
In other words, insightful thinkers tend not to guess. They don’t provide an answer until they have had an Aha! moment.
Because insight solutions are produced below the threshold of consciousness, it is not possible to monitor and adjust processing before the solution enters awareness.
Insights are not the same as gut instincts, as Salvi told Christopher Bergland of Psychology Today:
“Insight problem solving occurs when, after working on a problem for awhile and maybe feeling stuck, a solution unexpectedly emerges into consciousness in an ‘Aha!’ moment. This happens because our mind restructures, reframes the initial representation of a problem and that allows us to see it under a new light and solve it.”
The way that the researchers describe the “unconscious” mind playing a role in Aha! moments reminds me of a famous quotation by Arthur Koestler who once described the experience of finding the conscious truth by connecting to the intuitive subconscious,
“The moment of truth, the sudden emergence of a new insight, is an act of intuition. Such intuitions give the appearance of miraculous flushes, or short-circuits of reasoning. In fact they may be likened to an immersed chain, of which only the beginning and the end are visible above the surface consciousness. The diver vanishes at one end of the chain and comes up at the other end, guided by invisible links.”
Analytical thinking is best used for problems in which known strategies have been laid out for solutions, such as arithmetic, Kounios said. But for new problems without a set path for finding a solution, insight is often best. The new study shows that more weight should be placed on these sudden thoughts.
This means that in all kinds of personal and professional situations, when a person has a genuine, sudden insight, then the idea has to be taken seriously. It may not always be correct, but it can have a higher probability of being right than an idea that is methodically worked out.