Aha, Uh-oh and Doh: The Psychology of Insight

And how to improve cognitive flexibility.

‘Insight’ is sometimes used to mean something like ‘self-awareness’, including awareness of our thought processes, beliefs, desires, emotions, and so on, and how they might relate to truth or usefulness. Of course, self-awareness comes by degrees. Owing to chemical receptors in their tendrils, vining plants know not to coil around themselves, and in that much can be said to have awareness of self and not-self. Children begin to develop reflective self-awareness at around 18 months of age, enabling them to recognize themselves in pictures and mirrors.

But ‘insight’ is also used to mean something like ‘penetrating discernment’, especially in cases when a solution to a previously intractable problem suddenly presents itself—and it is on this particular meaning of the word that I now want to focus on.

Such ‘aha moments’, epitomized by Archimedes’ cry of Eureka! Eureka! (Gr., ‘I found it! I found it!’), involve seeing something familiar in a new light or context, particularly a brighter or broader one, leading to a novel perspective and positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, and confidence. It is said that, after stepping into his bath, Archimedes noticed the water level rising, and suddenly understood that the volume of water displaced corresponded to the volume of the part of his body that had been submerged. Lesser examples of aha moments include suddenly understanding a joke, or suddenly perceiving the other aspect of a reversal image such as the duck/rabbit optical illusion (pictured). Aha moments result primarily from unconscious and automatic processes, and we tend, when working on insight problems, to look away from sources of visual stimulus.

Aha moments ought to be distinguished from uh-oh moments, in which we suddenly become aware of an unforeseen problem, and from doh moments, popularized by Homer Simpson, when an unforeseen problem hits us and/or we have a flash of insight into our lack of insight.

‘Thinking out of the box’ is a significant cognitive achievement. Once we have understood something in one way, it is very difficult to see it in any other way, even in the face of strong contradictory evidence. In When Prophecy Fails (1956), Leon Festinger discussed his experience of infiltrating a UFO doomsday cult whose leader had prophesied the end of the world. When the end of the world predictably failed to materialize, most of the cult members dealt with the dissonance that arose from the cognitions ‘the leader said the world would end’ and ‘the world did not end’ not by abandoning the cult or its leader, as you might expect, but by introducing the rationalization that the world had been saved by the strength of their faith!

Very often, to see something in a different light also means to see ourselves and the whole world in that new light, which can threaten and undermine our sense of self. It is more a matter of the emotions than of reason, which explains why even leading scientists can struggle with perceptual shifts. According to the physicist Max Planck, “a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Or to put it more pithily, science advances one funeral at a time.

Even worse, strong contradictory evidence, or attempts to convince us otherwise, can, in fact, be counterproductive and entrench our existing beliefs—which is why as a psychiatrist I rarely challenge my patients or indeed anyone directly. You don’t have to take my word for it: in one recent study, supplying ‘corrective information’ to people with serious concerns about the adverse effects of the flu jab actually made them less willing to receive it.

So, short of dissolving our egos like a zen master, what can we do to improve our cognitive flexibility? Of course, it helps to have the tools of thought, including language fluency and multiple frames of reference as given by knowledge and experience. But much more important is to develop that first sense of ‘insight’, namely, insight as self-awareness.

On a more day-to-day basis, we need to create the time and conditions for allowing new connections to form. My own associative thinking is much more active when I’m both well-rested and at rest, for example, standing under the shower or ambling in the park. As Chairman and CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch spent an hour each day in what he called ‘looking out of the window time’. August Kekulé claimed to have discovered the ring structure of the benzene molecule while daydreaming about a snake biting its own tail.

Time is a very strange thing, and not at all linear: sometimes, the best way of using it is to waste it.

Nyhan B & Reifler J (2015): Does correcting myths about the flu vaccine work? An experimental evaluation of the effects of corrective information. Vaccine 33(3):459-464.

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