How does insight work?

posted by Jason Kottke Jul 25, 2008

Jonah Lerher, author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, has a piece in the New Yorker this week (not online1) about how the process of insight works in the brain. The main takeaway is that insight comes easiest when our brains are relaxed and not focused on too much detail so that it is able to look for more general associations between seemingly disparate ideas.

Kounios tells a story about an expert Zen meditator who took part in one of the C.R.A. insight experiments. At first, the meditator couldn't solve any of the insight problems. "This Zen guy went through thirty or so of the verbal puzzles and just drew a blank," Kounios said. "He was used to being very focussed, but you can't solve these problems if you're too focussed." Then, just as he was about to give up, he started solving one puzzle after another, until, by the end of the experiment, he was getting them all right. It was an unprecedented streak. "Normally, people don't get better as the task goes along," Kounios said. "If anything, they get a little bored." Kounios believes that the dramatic improvement of the Zen meditator came from his paradoxical ability to focus on not being focussed, so that he could pay attention to those remote associations in the right hemisphere. "He had the cognitive control to let go," Kounios said. "He became an insight machine."

[1] There's a samizdat PDF of the article here.