Research Review

Potential application of insight to health, wellness and lifestyle change

Does adequate sleep promote insight problem solving?

1. Sleep inspires insight. Wagner U, Gais S, Haider H, et al.  Nature 2004;427:352-355

puzzle-piecesThis pilot study suggested that adequate, restful sleep, together with appropriate problem-solving instruction, can significantly increase insight-driven solutions to perplexing problems. Volunteers were given the Numbers Reduction Task, in which subjects learn a stimulus-response sequence with multiple task blocks. After initial testing, subjects were retested after 8 hours of uninterrupted nocturnal sleep, after 8 hours of nocturnal wakefulness or during daytime wakefulness. Subjects who experienced restful sleep gained insight (discovered a hidden rule within the test) more efficiently than those who experienced wakefulness, irrespective of the time of day.

2. Differential associations of early and late night sleep with functional brains states promoting insight to abstract task regularity. Yordanoa J, Kolev V, Wagner U, and Verleger R. PLoS 2012;5(2):e9442. Doi;10.137/journal.pona.0009442.

Summary: To follow up the above preliminary observations, these investigators explored the question, does sleep-related change in functional activation affect insight problem solving? As before, they relied on the Number Reduction Task, in which subjects transform a string of numbers into a new sequence according to transformation rules. Discovery of a hidden rule to simplify the process was embedded in the test, as a marker of insight.

Volunteers were provided initial test instruction, then divided into two sleep groups: 25 in an early night sleep (NRT given before and after three hours of full slow wave sleep), and 23 in a late half of the night (NRT given after 3 hours of REM sleep). Activation pathways were assessed by measuring alpha and beta EEG activity and by recording spatial task synchronization. Slow cortical potential was measured to assess task-dependent activation.

A sleep-induced drop in characteristic beta and alpha EEG activity in the right frontal region occurred only in 8/25 (early night) and 5/23 (late night) subjects who discovered the hidden rule in the number reduction trial. Insight-related enhancement occurred after sleep, regardless of early or late night problem presentation. Possibly the mechanism involves "explicit processing systems" and/or "implicit knowledge conversion" into explicit via right hemisphere signaling along with increased information transfer.

Comment: A variety of research using EEG markers of insight suggests that problem solving by insight is associated with right hemispheric activation as well as with occipital activation. Sleep is a complex phenomenon, and the impact of circadian alterations in neurotransmitters and neurohormones is hard to rule out. It is interesting that insight problem solvers showed signs of right frontal involvement before sleep. Cortisol and the HPA axis control the awakening response, in turn modulated by stress, age and environmental factors. It has been proposed the REM sleep aids creative problem solving due to changes in cholinergic and noradrenergic modulation. Only 22% - 32% of subjects used insight, according to test criteria. Assuming that insight problem solving is innate, do factors such as emotional state, motivation, idiosyncratic sleep patterns explain these results?

Does positive mood encourage insight?

A brain mechanism for facilitation of insight by positive affect. Subramanian K, Kounios J, Parrish TB, Jung-Beeman M. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 2009;21:415-432. PMID. 18578603

Summary: The authors explored the proposal that insight problem solving involves increased cognitive control, especially by modulating cognitive control mechanisms that promote improved detection and use of weak, remote associations.

Initially mood and personality were assessed for 79 healthy adult volunteers (Positive and Negative Affect Schedule, state-Trait anxiety inventory and Behavioral Inhibition Scale-Behavioral Activation Scale). Following instruction on insight/non-insight problem solving, participants were tested using 135 Compound Remote Associate problems, used previously. Subjects judged their responses as insight, if they achieved sudden solutions, and non-insight if they used incremental or analytical methods. To help clarify mechanisms, 52 subjects performed the task without functional MRI scanning; 27 were tested in the scanner.

Subjects solved 41% of their problems, and 50.8% of these connected problem solving with insight. Insight users solved problems quicker than controls. Only five participants scored high on negative affect. Of the 24 who scored high in PA and low NA, PA increased insight, but had no effect on the rate of analytical solutions. The results suggest that subjects in a positive mood solved more problems using insight, compared to those with less positive or negative mood. Anxiety seemed to be negatively correlated with insight.

Brain imaging suggested that positive affect increased activity of specific regions of the anterior cingulate cortex, supporting the proposal that insight increases cognitive control and restructuring. The implication is that positive mood correlates with changes in the preparation phase of problem solving.

Comment: Extensive research indicates that positive mood improves creative problem solving, and cognitive flexibility in settings ranging from medical diagnosis to negotiation challenges. The authors demonstrated that positive mood can influence the preparatory states that increase the responsiveness of the anterior cingulate cortex, via analysis of brain regions -- showing mood differences in activity during problem solving preparation, those showing insight-specific activity, and those activated during preparation. Because the study relied on subjects' self-reporting, subjects could have potentially used different decision processes for insight versus non-insight solutions. Another consideration: Does positive mood promote the use of simpler problem solving processes? It is of interest that positive affect seemed to improve all aspects of problem solving.

What is the best time to be creative?

 Time of day effects on problem-solving: When the non-optimal is optimal. Wieth MB, Zachs RT. Thinking & Reasoning 2011;17:387-401. DOI:10.1080/13546783.2011

Fotolia 27748143 XSSummary: Wieth and Zachs approached the question of optimal time to be creative by grouping 428 young adults into those who felt they were most creative in the morning vs those who considered themselves to be most creative later, and those who were neutral. Volunteers were then randomized to receive six problems to be solved in 4 minutes at either 8:30 a.m. or 4:30 p.m. Three problems relied on analysis, and three relied on going back and reconsidering initial assumptions after reaching a dead end. Students who considered themselves morning persons used insight more effectively in the afternoon. Those who considered themselves night owls, were more creative in the morning. The authors propose that during the non-optimal times for analytical thinking, the brain more readily shifts to finding new associations among distantly related information to overcome mental impasse.

Comment:  The results challenge the assumption that it is better to problem solve when fully rested. This generalization needs refinement: That individuals exhibit different biorhythms has been well documented. Personal experience can reveal the optimal time of day to consider routine problems. However, chronic stress changes the landscape. It progressively alters response by the hypothalamus - pituitary - adrenal axis and circadian rhythms, while possibly diminishing problem solving performance. It would be interesting to explore the relationship between creative problem solving and time management. Rather than focusing on the most pressing problem first thing in the morning, a more useful strategy for a "morning person", might be to save problems that demand innovative solutions till later, when diffuse, less task restricted thinking becomes an advantage.

Can insight be enhanced by looking beyond obvious connections?

Recast a problem beyond apparent functions/relationships to encourage insight. Innovation Relies on the Obscure: A Key to Overcoming the Classic Problem of Functional Fixedness. Anthony McCaffrey, Psychological Science (online print Feb 7, 2012 DOI:10.1177/0956797622429580).

Fotolia 24920792 XSSummary: McCaffrey studied how inventors overcame a variety of cognitive blocks, that is, factors that inhibit awareness of obscure features (functional fixedness). He derived a model to improve innovation, which includes the application of "generic parts technique" presented with a variety of insight problems used in testing. To help problem solvers see beyond common functions, 14 trained volunteers were asked to list function-free descriptions for different aspects of a given insight puzzle. Compared to 14 untrained controls, the trained group solved significantly more insight problems. In addition, the trained cohort found obscure features needed to solve the insight problems about 3 times as often as controls.

Comment: This preliminary report presents intriguing evidence that training in specific cognitive techniques can enhance insight-based problem solving. McCaffrey instructed volunteers to consciously detach the immediate test problem from obvious solutions. In effect participants created a concept tree. Apparently those who were the most successful in this activity were the ones more likely to use insight problem solving. Mind mapping and concept files are widely used. The distinctive feature of his approach incorporates developing and considering multiple functions/actions/environments to expand a matrix for a given problem.

Does mental preparation enhance insight problem solving?

The subconscious mind delivers insight prior to the conscious awareness of a new solution. Posterior Beta and Anterior Gamma Oscillations Predict Cognitive Insight. BR Sheth, S Sandkuhler and J Bhattacharya. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 2009;21:1269-1279.PMID:18702591

Fotolia 42706901 XSSummary: To study whether individuals have to be in a prepared state before an insight solution occurs, 18 student volunteers (mean age 21.2 years) without history of neurological disorder were selected. Subjects were presented with 16 simple, unfamiliar verbal puzzles, whose single solutions did not require special knowledge, or set solution for a successful solution. Prior to testing, subjects were introduced to hallmarks of insight and given 3 practice problems. EEG recordings were run during problem presentation. Upon solving the problem, subjects were instructed to give the solution an insight rating as soon as it emerged. If a solution was not forthcoming within 90 seconds, a hint appeared.

The procedure generated 8 experimental results, such as correct solution obtained, or subjective high rating of insight, with or without a hint. EEG results indicated a decrease in the beta band intensity for the parietal, parietal-occipital and centro-temporal areas of the brain associated with transformative thinking. The gamma band power increased in the right cerebral hemisphere when subjects correctly solved the insight problem and rated their solutions as high. These changes in EEG spectra preceded an emotional Aha! by 1 to 8 seconds.

Comment: Research by other investigators illuminated neural processes underlying insight, using functional magnetic resonance imaging and EEG responses in brains of volunteers using word tasks. That research detected a burst of activity in the right temporal cortex milliseconds before the eureka response. To overcome limitations of those studies, the current authors chose practical, simple brain teasing problems that did not offer methodological solutions. The authors suggest that unconscious processing does not deliver a solution to consciousness until it has come up with an insight (after up to 8 seconds). Conscious thought does not seem to solve insight problems; and the brain must be in a certain "background" state beforehand.