Q: How did you get started looking at the science of insight?
Kounios: There was a controversy in cognitive psychology about whether thinking changes gradually over time — what’s called continuous processing –or if your brain snaps from one state to another state to another state. The thinking at the time was that all thought gradually flowed, and that what people thought of as insight was just an emotional flourish, an added “oomph” at the end of the thinking process that made it feel sudden.
We designed some experiments, using anagrams where you have to rearrange letters to find a word, and found that some people go from having no idea about the solution, to having the solution in one jump. That showed us insight is real.
I decided to focus on the neural basis of creativity and began working with my colleague Mark Beeman to map both where and when sudden insights were happening in the brain.
I use EEG, or measurements of the brain’s electrical activity, which is good for knowing exactly when in time something is happening in the brain, but not as good as showing where. And Mark uses fMRI technology, which looks at changes in the blood flow in the brain and is good at showing where brain activity is happening, but is fuzzy about when.
So we decided to combine our strategies.
Q: What have you found?
Kounios: Studying insight poses challenges. I’d love to stuff someone in a brain scanner and wait for them to have an insight. But that’s not practical. So we give people what are called “remote associates problems.” Each consists of three words, like pine/crab/sauce, and you have to think of a fourth word that would make a compound word or familiar phrase with each one. In this case, the answer is “apple.”
People can solve these problems one of two ways: They can sit there and methodically, analytically try to figure out the solution – using analytical reasoning. Or, sometimes they look at the problem and the solution just pops into their awareness, like an ‘A-ha’ moment.
We compared the brain activity for both insightful and analytic solutions. We found that right at the point where the problem is solved with a flash of insight, there’s a burst of gamma wave activity in the right temporal lobe just above the ear, specifically the right anterior superior temporal gyrus. People who solved the problem analytically didn’t have that same activity.
We also tested people in their resting state, then gave them a bunch of anagrams to solve. We found some people, we call them Analyticals, tended to use analytical reasoning to solve the puzzles. And another group, we called Insightfuls, relied predominantly on insight. And found that, even at rest, their brains are functioning somewhat differently.
People who are highly analytical have more activity in their left frontal lobe. And people who are highly insightful have more activity in the right posterior parietal lobe, in the back of the brain.
The frontal lobes are all about focus, control, strategic thought. And when that is highly active, then people are very organized and very focused. When the frontal lobe is deactivated, people tend to be somewhat scattered and disorganized, but they also tend to be somewhat creative.
In fact, people with mild ADHD tend to score more highly on tests of creativity.
We also found a third category, people who tend to be either highly analytical or highly insightful, but can voluntarily change their brain state and switch cognitive styles as needed.
Q: So we think both analytically and insightfully. Is one type of thinking better?
Kounios: Some problems, you can solve either way, analytically or with a flash of insight. Some problems lend themselves to analytic thinking. If I give you a column of numbers to add up, you can’t just look at it and expect to know the answer – maybe savants can, but most people can’t. But people do know how, step by step, to add the numbers and come up with a result.
But others problems are unbounded, unconstrained. Like, how do I become happy? How do I become a good person? There are no particular ground rules, no formula to follow for that. People often solve those problems through a flash of insight, which is a form of creativity, and why it’s desirable.
Because it’s more and more the case that the problems we’re facing in the world today as individuals and as a society are becoming too complicated – terrorism, pollution – they’ve become intertwined and globalized. There’s no straightforward method for solving them. It will take creativity.
Q: How can readers set the stage for insights, for creativity, to arise?
Kounios: Insight is like a cat. You can’t order it to appear. You can coax it. But you can’t command it. Creativity and insight flows from a particular brain state. And if you can put yourself in this brain state, you will be more likely to have these creative insights.
And we do know from scientific study that altering aspects of your environment can help you.
1. Positive mood: There is a lot of research going back 20, 30 years showing that being in a positive mood improves creativity. When you’re in a somewhat negative mood, a little anxious, that actually improves analytical thought.
Creativity flows from a state of feeling safe or secure. When you feel safe or secure, you can take risks. And creativity is intellectually risky. When you come up with new ideas, they can be wrong. When you try to implement new ideas, you can meet resistance.
But when you feel subtle, unconscious threat, you feel you can’t make mistakes. You have to stay focused on the topic, so you don’t stray far from what the problem is, or what you need to do.
We also found that having a deadline, which carries with it the implicit threat of a negative consequence if you don’t meet it, can create anxiety and shift your cognitive strategy into a more analytical mode of thought. Deadlines can increase analytical productivity, but if an employer really needs something outside the box, innovative and original, maybe a soft target date would encourage more creativity.
In another study, we found that, for people who solved problems analytically, they had more activity in their visual cortex – they were outwardly focused. But before people solved problems with a flash of insight, they had less activity in their visual cortex – they were focusing their attention inwardly.
And before a flash of insight, there was more activity in the anterior cingulate, right in the middle of the head. What the anterior cingulate does is monitor the rest of the brain for conflicts. It also detects different strategies for solving problems. You can’t use two strategies at the same time. Some are strongly activated, because they’re the most obvious. And some are weak, or more distant – inklings, hunches, that tend to be more creative, even strange or off the wall.
When you’re in a positive mood, you’re more sensitive to picking up these weakly activated, unconscious ideas and, when it’s detected, your attention can switch to it, and it can pop into the head as an insight. If you’re in a bad mood, and the anterior cingulate is not activated, it just goes with what’s strongest, which is usually the most straightforward.
A good mood literally expands the scope of your thought.
2. Large spaces: Perceptual attention – how you focus your vision — seems to be related to what’s called conceptual attention. If you’re in a cramped space, say your office is a little cubicle, your visual attention can’t spread out. It’s focused in this narrow space. Just as your visual attention is constricted, your conceptual attention becomes narrow and focused, and your thinking is more likely to be analytical.
But if you’re in a large space – a big office, with high ceilings, or outside — your visual attention expands to fill the space, and your conceptual attention expands.
That’s why a lot of creative figures like to be outdoors, to take long walks in nature, and they get their inspiration from being in the wide, open spaces. If you can see far and wide, then you can think far and wide.
3. Avoid sharp objects: We’ve found that if you have striking objects, ones with sharp edges, pointy features, like a sofa with angular sides, or a letter opener that looks like a dagger, it can cause this subtle, unconscious feeling of threat. When that happens, attention narrows.
So the ideal environment for being insightful would be large, airy spaces with soft, rounded features.
4. The colors of nature: The color red — we think of it as an emergency color, associated with blood, fire engines and stop signs — grabs the attention and narrows it. But the outdoor colors, like the blue of the sky or the green of the trees, has been associated with relaxation, expansion, which creates a feeling of safety, which helps the attention expand and increases creativity.
It’s not true for everybody. Say your hobby is growing roses, and you could associate red with roses you love.
5. Take a break: When you take a break from a problem that you’re stuck on and do something completely different, you forget the bad idea that you were fixated on. It allows other ideas, better ideas, to bubble up to the surface. And if you’re working on a problem, but failing to solve it, when you take a break, your brain becomes more sensitized to anything in the environment related to the problem. So you notice more, you may make an association, which then pops into your awareness as a sudden insight.
6. Sleep: One of the most powerful tools for promoting insight is sleep. If you’re stuck, take a nap, go to bed, you’ll more thoroughly purge the bad idea you’re stuck on, and you’ll be more attuned to clues that might solve the problems.
One of the most interesting discoveries of neuroscience of the last 20 years is that when you acquire memories, they’re stored in temporary, fragile form, like cement. When you pour it, initially it’s soft, but when it dries and hardens, it becomes strong and durable. Memories are like that. They become hardened through a process of consolidation, which happens largely during sleep.
Memory consolidation actually transforms the memory, as well. It brings out details, hidden relationships. That can be the stuff of creativity and insight.
That’s why there are so many stories of people waking up in the middle of the night with a new idea or solution to a problem. Like Paul McCartney. He was awakened one morning with this melody in his head. It was the song, “Yesterday.” It just appeared to him. Sleep supercharges creativity.
7. Do nothing Doing nothing is creative work. Because when you’re consciously doing nothing, the conscious part is only a tiny part of what your brain is. The rest of it, the unconscious, is chugging away all the time. There’s this process cognitive psychologists call “incubation” – the brain churning over associations. And these associations can pop into awareness as insight. The incubation process is supercharged during sleep, and also when doing nothing, letting your mind wander and having no particular task to perform.
If you keep people’s minds busy all the time with tasks, that inhibits this incubation process. I don’t want to say that people should become Luddites and get rid of all the gadgets and become hermits – all that provides raw data for incubation.
But what we need is a balance between doing nothing and doing something – we need both to fuel creativity and insight.
8. Take a shower. The shower is a great place to let your mind wander, to incubate thoughts and set the stage for insight. In the shower, the water is warm, you don’t feel a boundary between your skin and the outside of your body. You feel sort of expansive. There’s white noise in the background. What you see is kind of blurry, so you turn your thoughts inward, like sensory deprivation. It allows your mind to wander and your attention to broaden. That’s why people tend to have great ideas in the shower.
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