the making of insight

I reflected on the strangeness of my lifestyle as I was grocery shopping, surrounded by mothers with strollers and retirees at 2pm on a Monday. I hoped that they would not think I am strange, or worse, not gainfully employed. Despite the afternoon warmth I wore a dress shirt, to project respectability. It’s not that I’m a layabout – it is just that it is hard to demonstrate the way in which what I do is actually work.

Ultimately, I am trying to manufacture insight. I like insight as a product for many reasons: it’s easy to carry, cheap to reproduce and when applied in just the right time and place it’s the most useful thing there is. But making insight is qualitatively different than making most other goods. I spent 7 years working in a woodshop making picture frames, and the contrast is striking. But not because a picture frame is a material thing, and insight is mental or symbolic. You can’t eat a picture frame either, nor does it directly serve any other life-sustaining function. To my mind, the difference is more in the kind of effort that needs to be applied.

As a typical insight problem, consider the classic Nine Dot problem. Most psych students know it:

There is a way to connect all nine dots with just four straight lines. Can you see it?

If you haven’t seen this before, solving it will require a frame-shift that is usually accompanied by which psychologists call an ‘aha!’ moment. That’s the typical phenomenology of an insight problem – that it brings you to some kind of impasse, which is then broken by a sudden realization.

Metcalfe and Wiebe (1987 – click for pdf) did a study on people’s self-reported feelings of “warmth” as they tried to solve insight vs. non-insight problems. When faced with puzzles that could be solved incrementally, one logical step after another, people reported feeling more confident that they would solve the problem the closer they got to actually solving it. They knew when they were getting ‘warmer’. But with insight problems, even 15 seconds before finding a solution, people didn’t feel much more confident that they would be able to solve it. Whatever process is involved in insight problem solving, it doesn’t seem to be accessible to consciousness in the same way that grinding away at non-insight problems is.

Work continues on the different characteristics of insight and non-insight problems. It appears, for example, that the different kinds of problem solving are realized by different parts of the brain (see Jung-Beeman et al. 2004, here). But even further, different parts of the brain are activated even before the subject sees a problem, depending on whether they are preparing to solve a problem with insight or not (Kounios et al. 2006, here). This kind of study answers a methodological problem in older work like Metcalfe and Wiebe (1987), which was that they assumed that the world is simply divided into problems which require insight and those that do not. Kounios et al. treat insight as a feature of the subject, rather than a requirement for solving a particular problem.

So to review, making insight is a largely unconscious process that doesn’t necessarily give one the sense that anything is being accomplished until a solution is actually found. It’s a different psycho-physical process than solving normal problems, and involves one’s disposition toward a problem as much as the problem itself.

Which is why, I think, I feel so odd watching the construction workers out my window, or shopping with the Moms with their strollers at 2pm on a Monday afternoon. I am working all day, just like they are, but my work is strange. It involves a lot of reading, but also a lot of naps. A professor once told me his young daughter was asked what he did for a living, and she replied, “He chews on a pencil.” That more or less sums it up.

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