07 December 2010

Problem Solving with Sudden Creative Insight


Most of us have solved problems using trial and error, slogging our way through the possibilities until we hit on the right answer. Some of us have solved problems through a sudden flash of insight -- an epiphany or eureka! moment. Of the two methods of problem solving, most of us who have experienced both, would prefer the epiphany. Northwestern University researchers have looked at these two methods of problem solving in an attempt to better understand how to achieve the more preferred sudden insight.
In a just completed study, researchers at Northwestern University found that people were more likely to solve word puzzles with sudden insight when they were amused, having just seen a short comedy routine.

“What we think is happening,” said Mark Beeman, a neuroscientist who conducted the study with Karuna Subramaniam, a graduate student, “is that the humor, this positive mood, is lowering the brain’s threshold for detecting weaker or more remote connections” to solve puzzles.

...For almost a century scientists have used puzzles to study what they call insight thinking, the leaps of understanding that seem to come out of the blue, without the incremental drudgery of analysis.

In one classic experiment, the German psychologist Karl Duncker presented people with a candle, a box of thumbtacks and the assignment of attaching the candle to a wall. About a quarter of the subjects in some studies thought to tack the box to the wall as a support — some immediately, and others after a few failed efforts to tack wax to drywall.

The creative leap may well be informed by subconscious cues. In another well-known experiment, psychologists challenged people to tie together two cords; the cords hung from the ceiling of a large room, too far apart to be grabbed at the same time.

A small percentage of people solved it without any help, by tying something like a pair of pliers to one cord and swinging it like a pendulum so that it could be caught while they held the other cord.

...creative problem-solving usually requires both analysis and sudden out-of-the-box insight.

“You really end up toggling between the two, but I think that they are truly different brain states,” said Adam Anderson, a psychologist at the University of Toronto.

At least, that is what brain-imaging studies are beginning to show. At first, such studies did little more than confirm that the process was happening as expected: brain areas that register reward spiked in activity when people came up with a solution, for instance..

Yet the “Aha!” moment of seeing a solution is only one step along a pathway. In a series of recent studies, Dr. Beeman at Northwestern and John Kounios, a psychologist at Drexel University, have imaged people’s brains as they prepare to tackle a puzzle but before they’ve seen it. Those whose brains show a particular signature of preparatory activity, one that is strongly correlated with positive moods, turn out to be more likely to solve the puzzles with sudden insight than with trial and error (the clues can be solved either way).

...The punch line is that a good joke can move the brain toward just this kind of state. In their humor study, Dr. Beeman and Dr. Subramaniam had college students solve word-association puzzles after watching a short video of a stand-up routine by Robin Williams. The students solved more of the puzzles over all, and significantly more by sudden insight, compared with when they’d seen a scary or boring video beforehand.

This diffuse brain state is not only an intellectual one, open to looser connections between words and concepts. In a study published last year, researchers at the University of Toronto found that the visual areas in people in positive moods picked up more background detail, even when they were instructed to block out distracting information during a computer task.

The findings fit with dozens of experiments linking positive moods to better creative problem-solving. “The implication is that positive mood engages this broad, diffuse attentional state that is both perceptual and visual,” said Dr. Anderson. “You’re not only thinking more broadly, you’re literally seeing more. The two systems are working in parallel.”

The idea that a distracted brain can be a more insightful one is still a work in progress. So, for that matter, is the notion that puzzle-solving helps the brain in any way to navigate the labyrinth of soured relationships, uncertain career options or hard choices that so often define the world outside. _NYT
This line of thought takes me back to the difference between hypnosis and meditation. With hypnosis, the attention is focused so narrowly that the mind becomes progressively unaware of anything except the object of focus. With meditation (mindfulness mediation), the attention becomes softened progressively, so that the mind seems to become aware of everything all at once -- but without anxiety. An ongoing fMRI study comparing hypnosis and mindfulness meditation may help to answer many of the questions which have been asked when comparing the two states of mind.

The Northwestern researchers above discovered that humour tended to soften the attention, and make the mind more prepared to receive a flash of sudden insight for solving a problem. Parallels between humour and meditation have been drawn many times -- specifically by the late philosopher and Zen enthusiast Alan Watts.

Using various metrics including psychological testing and brain imaging, researchers have found that mindfulness meditation tends to lend toward a more youthful and flexible brain -- including the preservation of cortical thickness in older individuals who practise mindfulness, comparable to brain thickness of much younger persons.

Mindfulness should be taught rather early in life, and should become a lifelong practise -- although either is rare, and both together are almost unheard of. Enhanced problem solving and preservation of cortical thickness into old age would both be welcome side benefits to the main effect of an ongoing enhancement of day to day awareness.

More bits and pieces:
The functional M.R.I. images reveal that when people are emotionally distressed — anxious, angry, depressed — the most active sites in the brain are circuitry converging on the amygdala, part of the brain's emotional centers, and the right prefrontal cortex, a brain region important for the hypervigilance typical of people under stress.

By contrast, when people are in positive moods — upbeat, enthusiastic and energized — those sites are quiet, with the heightened activity in the left prefrontal cortex. _Goleman

The difference between concentration/hypnosis and meditation is really more about expansive versus contractive awareness. Many hypnotic induction techniques encourage the subject to shrink their focus down to just one thing such as the hypnotist's voice or watching a small spot on a wall so that all other points of awareness are temporarily pushed out of awareness. In most hypnosis there is initially an increase in Beta brainwaves as the subject engages their thinking mind to start blocking out things. As they physically relax into the experience of concentration the Alpha waves begin to arise.

When you enter into hypnosis much of the racing mind gets pushed out of awareness leaving you with far less mental chatter than usual. Superficially, you might think that sounds just like meditation, and in a way it is, and in another way it isn't. In meditation we transcend racing thoughts whereas in rigid concentration or hypnosis we repress them. The result is less thinking, but the mechanisms work on opposite principles. _ProjectMeditation


When studied in psychology, relaxation refers to a focusing on the mind and a relaxing of the body's muscles. Research has shown that being too tense and/or living with too much stress has a significant negative impact on our lives. It can lead to physical illnesses such as high blood pressure, ulcers, fatigue, and headaches and many psychological issues, including inappropriate or misdirected emotions, confusion, difficulty concentrating, and burn-out. People utilize relaxation, in combination with stress management, to improve their quality of life, reduce the physical components of stress, and improve their psychological functioning.

There are different forms of relaxation, including breathing exercises, deep muscle relaxation, progressive muscle relaxation, imagery, meditation, and yoga. Although each of these has different components, the main goal in each is to relax the body's muscles and focus the mind. Since the body and the mind cannot be separated, most agree that both of these components must be present for any relaxation technique to work.


Hypnosis is very similar to relaxation in that the same two components of physical and mental must be addressed together. Most professionals agree that hypnosis is a very deep state of relaxation where your mind is more focused and the connection between your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are more clear. _Psych101

This last comparison appears to contradict what I said above about hypnosis and meditation. But remember, there are many forms of meditation. Some of them are virtually indistinguishable from many forms of self-hypnosis.
You could also watch your favourite comic or comedy show, and achieve much of the benefit of meditation. Alternatively, you could just belly laugh. Interestingly, that also works.

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