Note: There is a lot of background information on this page! You can skip directly to my studies by clicking here!
What is it?
Imagine you are working a really difficult problem when, suddenly, the solution just "pops" into your mind. This experience is known as an insight (also called an Aha! or Eureka! moment), and it involves a shift in or reinterpretation of how you were thinking about the problem. Sometimes, but not always, insight occurs after you are "stuck" (known as a mental impasse), and it may be accompanied by a feeling of surprise, confidence, or positive emotion. Insight is often contrasted with analytic solving, which is more conscious, deliberate, and stepwise. You can read more about analytic solving here.
Most likely, you have already experienced insight at some point in your life, even if you needed to verified the solution analytically. You may also know some famous stories about insight experiences, such as the story of Archimedes's Eureka! moment in the bath or perhaps the story of how Otto Loewi discovered chemical neurotransmitters after he experienced insight while sleeping.
How do insights happen?
Insight is an unconscious process, which means that it's happening "under the hood" while you are doing other things (even while you are actively working on the problem). While exact mechanisms by which insight occurs are still being researched, one theory (known as the "spreading activation model") suggests that when you are taking in (learning) or retriving (from memory) information, dominant (strong) and weak associations between those pieces are information are "activated" in your brain.
There are many factors and conditions, such as time spent away from the problem (known as incubation) or mood (especially positive mood), that affect whether one is more likely to experience insight. My research focuses on the interaction between attention and insight (and analytic) problem solving.
How do we measure insights?
Several methods can be used to collect insights, but the most common are problem solving tasks or diary studies (i.e., asking people to record their insights throughout a period of time). Typical problem solving tasks include so-called "traditional" insight problems that often require some restructuring of information, such as the nine-dot problem or Duncker's candle test. These are often contrasted with traditional analytic problems that require step-by-step solving such as verbal math problems or logic problems that you might see on a standardized test (e.g., GREs or SATs).
In our studies, we like to use problems that can be solved with either insight or analysis. Examples of these kinds of problems include Compound Remote Associates (CRA) problems, anagrams, and magic tricks. In order to assess insight and analysis, we typically ask people how they ultimately reached a solution (i.e., whether with insight or analysis). Other studies also use continuous scales wherein one end of the scale represents a more insight-like experience and the other end represents a more analytic-like experience.
Insight and attention
My research focus is on the interaction between problem solving and attention. I am particularly interested in how problem solving is affected by the ways we attend to information.
What is "attention"?
At any given moment, you are taking in some sensory information (e.g., visual, audio, olfactory, etc). However, your brain does not process all of this sensory information. Instead, your brain selectively processes some information while ignoring other information - this is the role of attention. For example, have you ever tried to listen to someone else speak while watching a movie? You'll realize that you cannot pay attention to both the speaker and the movie at the same time; rather, you are selectively paying attention to one of the two sources (the speaker) while ignoring input from the other (the movie).
Attention can also be selectively focused or distributed among several objects, features, or events. For example, imagine you are trying to study your notes for a big exam. In this example, attention is selectively focused on one object (the text) while all other objects or events are ignored (e.g., environmental noise). In contrast, attention can be diffusely distributed among several objects or events, which allows you to process more sources of information but at the cost of lower resolution. For example, you could imagine yourself in a crowded coffee shop where dozens of conversations are happening around you. Even though you can't understand a single conversation fully, you might be able to pick up bits and pieces of several different conversations at a time.
Selective attention and analytic solving
For information about my studies on analytic problem solving and attention, please see the analysis page.
Distributed attention and insight
Distributed attention, or the spreading of attention across multiple objects, features, or events, is putatively related to insight problem solving. Our studies have found that people tend to solve more problems with insight, but not with analysis, after they are asked to perform a visual attention task that requires distributed attention. In addition, we looked at individual differences in the tendency to solve problems with insight and attentional selectivity at baseline (i.e., how people tend to behave without any manipulation). We found that people who have less selective attention (or more distributed attention) tended to solve more problems with insight. That is, people who are more likely to diffusely "take in" more information are also more likely to be insight-solvers.
Relevant papers & presentations
|Ng, T., & Beeman, M. (2019). Modulating Visual Attention Influences Problem Solving. Oral presentation the 2019 Annual Northwestern University Cognitive Brain Mapping Group Data Blitz, Evanston, IL.|
|Ng, T., & Beeman, M. (2018). Increasing salience of competitors increases selective visual attention and induces more analytic problem solving. Poster presented at the 4th Meeting of the Society for the Neuroscience of Creativity, Boston, MA.|
|Ng, T., & Beeman, M. (2018). Increasing salience of competitors increases selective visual attention and induces more analytic problem solving. Poster presented at the 2018 Cognitive Neuroscience Society Annual Meeting, Boston, MA.|
|Ng, T., & Beeman, M. (2017). Selective attention to global stimuli induces analytic problem solving. Oral presentation at the Meeting of Chicago Creativity Group, Chicago, IL.|
|Ng, T., & Beeman, M. (2017). Selective attention to global stimuli induces analytic problem solving. Oral presentation at the 3rd Meeting of the Society for the Neuroscience of Creativity, San Francisco, CA.|
|Ng, T., & Beeman, M. (2017). Selective attention to global stimuli induces analytic problem solving. Poster presented at the 2017 Cognitive Neuroscience Society Annual Meeting, San Francisco, CA.|
|Ng, T. (2016). Spatially broad but selective attention leads to more analytic problem solving. Oral presentation at the 2016 Annual Northwestern University Cognitive Brain Mapping Group Data Blitz, Chicago, IL.|
|Ng, T., & Beeman, M. (2016). Taking in both Global and Local levels increases insight problem solving. Poster presented at the 28th Association for Psychological Science Annual Convention, Chicago, IL.|