Overview: Insight Problem Solving

What are Insights?

The popular media often refers to insights as the "Aha!” or “Eureka!” experience, when the solution to a previously insoluble problem becomes clear “in a flash of inspiration.” Formal definitions of insight include “the capacity to discern the true nature of a situation” (American Dictionary of the English Language), and “the capacity to gain accurate and intuitive understanding” (Oxford Dictionary of the English Language),

A physiological definition emerges from neuroscience and behavioral psychology: Insight can be viewed as the brain’s restructuring of an existing problem. Such restructuring appears as a new pattern of nerve activity localized in specific regions of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain specialized for cognition. Even so, details of insight problem solving remain elusive, and this arena represents a focal point of current research.

Insight problem solving differs from analytical problem solving

Fotolia 39759045 XSThe difference between insight and sequential, methodological problem solving has been recognized for 88 years (Maier, 1931). Analytical reasoning is used routinely to solve problems: methodological strategies can lead progressively to effective solutions.

Yet persistent problems are often solved with insight, independently of sequential reasoning. In contrast to analytical reasoning, insight occurs when the problem solver abruptly goes from ‘not knowing how to solve the problem’ to ‘knowing how to do it’. This process involves reformulating the problem without conscious analysis --seeing the vexing problem in a different context.

Both analytical reasoning and insight problem solving are innate strategies. They can overlap, or they can be used sequentially. Or a combination might be used to solve problems. Nonetheless, these two processes can be distinguished by neurological and behavioral criteria as demonstrated by research over the last decade.

The Insight Process

Research has identified a discrete sequence for insight problem solving, summarized as follows (Sandkuhler and Bhattacharya, 2008):

1. The insight process begins with a mental impasse for a given problem: The problem solver is blocked, unable to progress beyond unsatisfactory solutions. This impasse may be due to an over-reliance on habitual associations, or to excessive focus on inappropriate cues. Thus insight is characterized by a more effective understanding of the problem, beyond being locked into a single way of seeing it.

In practical terms, this initial step can be a “make or break” stage of insight learning. The frustration and disappointment of being stuck can be so discouraging that the problem solver gives up before the unconscious work can begin. Therefore, this first step offers a pivot point to engage in insight.

2. Problem restructuring: Restructuring of the problem involves a breakthrough in knowing how to solve the problem at hand. The central feature here is the appearance of a new cognitive structure to get past the mental block. Restructuring may be due to a subconscious reworking of perhaps distantly bits of information.

This model poses a practical question: What specific practices or techniques can be used to catalyze creative thinking in general, and to resolve challenges that limit healthful behavioral change and promote self-efficacy?

3. Emergence of a new solution: Insight learning engages concept reshuffling as an unconscious process, which seems to recognize atypical or unrelated factors that have previously been unnoticed. Often the emergence of a new solution via this route creates the eureka experience, a hallmark of insight-generated solutions (Schooler, et al. 1993).

Insight can be contrasted with intuition

Insights are derived from knowledge about a subject. "Insight is the capacity to gain accurate and a deep understanding of a problem and it is often associated with movement beyond existing paradigms" (McCrea, 2010). In contrast, "Intuition is the ability to understand immediately without conscious reasoning and is sometimes explained as a 'gut feeling' about the rightness or wrongness of a person, place, situation ..." (McCrea, 2010). Intuition reflects on emotions, which reflect the biases, experiences and belief systems of the problem solver, and are highly individualistic.

Right hemisphere, left hemisphere, or both?

Fotolia 30687889 XSRecent findings emphasize the interplay between functions traditionally assigned to the left hemisphere of the brain (detail-oriented, linear analytical thinking) - and those of the right hemisphere (“big picture” - intuitive, divergent and conceptual thinking).

Using brain imaging techniques, including monitoring changes in neurological blood flow (fMRI), and electroencephalography (EEG), neuroscientists reported that the characteristic flash of insight occurs as problem solvers employ several distinctive neural and cognitive processes beyond those observed with analytical problem solving (Jung-Beeman M, et al. 2004).

The preparatory phase, the initial activation for insight problem solving, deals with “executive control functions.” Localized in the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulated nucleus, such actions increase focus on the problem at hand, while blocking out distractions.  At the same time, these functions keep searching for workable strategies.

Furthermore, insight is accompanied by a characteristic burst of high frequency neuronal activity. This may indicate that neurons link up to form a new network, which then becomes accessible to consciousness (Jung-Beeman M, et al. 2006).

Yet this situation poses an apparent paradox: On one hand, insight requires initial focus on a single problem and on other hand, it also calls for less rigidity as the brain “wanders” and collects new or distant relationships. The right hemisphere is implicated because its neurons collect data from a larger domain, as compared to left hemisphere neurons.

Generalizations from creative individuals

Creativity or Innovation? Discussion of creativity and innovation begin with definitions: Creativity refers to an ability to conceive something that's new, while innovation refers to implementing new ideas. Creativity and innovation are regarded as products of unique insight.

Studies of highly creative people, including inventors, artists, writers, scientists, and business men and women, have identified activities associated with creativity and innovation. In addition, case studies of scientific discoveries and technological innovations support a neuro-computational model that ascribes creativity to versatility in assembling new patterns of neuronal activity from pre-existing patterns of encoded sensory information (Thagard, 2010). The following list of “creativity guidelines” is adapted from Thagard (2005) and typifies conclusions from such case studies.

  • Gather different points of view to help see problems “outside the box.”
  • Go with a passion. This degree of commitment nurtures creative thinking.
  • Take time off from thinking about the problem at hand to let ideas germinate.
  • Try out multiple, new ideas, even ‘crazy’ ones. The solution that works may come from an unusual perspective.
  • Persistence represents a hallmark of creativity. Insight-generated solutions often generate blind alleys. Successful innovators do not see a blind alley as a personal failing. Instead, they learn from experience and move on.

Unanswered questions

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Is breaking a conventional mold a prerequisite for innovation? What is the role of mood in the creative process? What role does stress play: Do deadlines enhance or inhibit creativity? What role do incentives play in innovation (Wieth and Burns, 2006).

While definitive answers to such questions await further study, behavior change research and available data suggests that specific techniques to promote creative thinking and insight problem solving can be learned and practiced, and applied to the challenge of optimal health during aging.


Bottom Line: No single route guarantees a creative solution. Generalizations based on anecdotes gloss over individual differences in learning styles, problem-solving styles, attitudes, beliefs and even environmental factors.


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  • Maier NRF. Reasoning in humans. II. The solution of a problem and its appearance in consciousness. J. Comp Psych 1931;12:181-194.
  • McCrea SM. Intuition, insight and the right hemisphere: Emergence of higher sociocognitive functions. Psychol Res Behav Manag. 2010;3:1-39.
  • Sandkuhler S, and Bhattacharya J. Deconstructing insight: EEG correlates of insightful problem solving PLoS One. 2008;23:e1459.
  • Schooler JW. Ohlsson,S, Brooks K thoughts beyond words: when language overshadows insight J Exp Psychol Gen 1993;122:166-183.
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  • Wieth M, Burns BD. Incentives improve performance on both incremental, and insight problem solving. Q J Exp Psychol 2006;59:1378-1395