Most of us can recall a time when we can identify with Archimedes’ exclamation of “Eureka,” which he uttered upon realizing that the volume of bathwater his body displaced is equal to the volume of the parts of his body submerged in the bath. What had seemed just moments before to be splintered, disconnected ideas suddenly merge into a new, simple, clear understanding, much like the shifting kaleidescope colors that suddenly coelesce into a beautiful image. Most recently, I experienced an “aha moment” while struggling with the nuances of high performance electrical neuroimaging (HPEN), a methodology favored by my co-author John Cacioppo and his brilliant wife, Steph. After studying volumes of material, I was frustrated by the feeling that I just wasn’t getting it. Putting my reading aside, I took my Australian shepherd out for a walk, determined to soak in the beautiful autumn sunshine and forget about neuroscience for a while. Much to my surprise, my thoughts drifted to stable microstates and their transitions, and it all seemed so easy!
Most of what we do in education involves analytical thought, where we plod step by logical step through a problem. How does the insight of an aha moment compare? Insight, which has been studied extensively by cognitive neuroscientists, has been defined as “any sudden comprehension, realization, or problem solution that involves a reorganization of the elements of a person’s mental representation of a stimulus, situation, or event to yield a nonobvious or nondominant interpretation” (Kounios & Beeman, 2014, p. 74). Insights often follow a blockage or impasse, such as my failure to comprehend HPEN, and are usually accompanied by surprise and positive emotion.
What makes insight experiences so memorable? We know that emotional memories can be especially memorable, so the ability of insight to trigger positive mood and surprise might “stamp” the new ideas into memory. We also know that information framed in your own words and associated with your own experience is more easily retrieved (the self-referent effect or SRE in memory). Solving problems, whether by insight or analytical thought, is rewarding, leading to positive associations between the material and the experience of retrieving it.
At the same time, positive mood not only results from an insight, but also promotes the likelihood of insight. Anxiety results in reduced focus. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense to focus narrowly on a source of threat, whether that is a snake in the road ahead or the fear of failure. In contrast, a relaxed positive mood opens people’s perspectives and stimulates exploration. This broader focus is more conducive to thinking “outside the box” in creative and less restricted ways.
What are the implications of our understanding of insight for educators? First, there is a time and a place for insight. Insight cannot occur in the absence of understanding the problem (Wallas, 1926, as cited in Kounios & Beeman, 2014). Students need to know the nuts and bolts of a problem before they are expected to interact with it creatively. Second, educators wishing to stimulate insight should strive to maintain a positive environment where it’s okay to fail as long as you learn something from your failure. An environment characterized by anxiety is counterproductive to the experience of insight.
We cannot guarantee that our students will experience insight in our classes, but seeing a light bulb go on in a student’s head is quite possibly one of the most rewarding experiences we have as educators.
Kounios, J., & Beeman, M. (2014). The cognitive neuroscience of insight. Annual Review
of Psychology, 65, 71—93. doi: 10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115154