We’ve all been there: you’ve been working on something for hours, turning it over and over and over in your mind because you just can’t get it right, the stress and anxiety piling on, so you force yourself to think harder until you can feel the tension in your face melt into a throbbing headache. Exasperated, you push it away and resolve to avoid it entirely. Happy to ignore your work for a little while, you move along with your day. Suddenly, when you’re so far removed from your problem you don’t even know how it popped into your head, the exact and most perfect answer reveals itself. You wonder to yourself why you didn’t think of it before because it fits so perfectly and is so obvious, and it takes you exactly in the new direction you were looking to go.
That is insight.
There are, broadly speaking, two typical kinds of problem-solving. There a logical, step-by-step approach, and then there is insight. A step-by-step approach is like a home improvement project: you have a clear vision of what you want it to be, and with that knowledge, you can choose the right tools to get the job done. When you’re solving a problem step-wise, the task at hand is clear, and all that is required of you is to figure out which logical method you need to use to in order to get to your goal. Insight is a little trickier. With insight, you don’t have the same contextual knowledge. When you do arrive at a creative insight, the previously murky grasp you had becomes transparently clear, giving you that “aha!” feeling. But despite the suddenness and apparent spontaneity of achieving insight, like a step-by-step approach, it is a gradual process.
The process of arriving at an insight is just as important, if not more so, as the insight itself. The conditions have to be just right. There isn’t an explicit outline for how insight happens, but over the past few decades, studies have observed a few trends. Generally speaking, insight requires a thorough understanding of the domain of knowledge involved–for example, if you’ve never learned anything about surfing, it’s unlikely that you’ll be lying in bed one night and suddenly understand the exact skills and technique required of a competitive surfer. There also has to be systematic involvement in the challenge at hand. That’s the feeling that you just can’t let the matter go, and you have to keep pushing yourself through it in order to get it right. Essential to arriving at insight, however, is to actually let it go. Stop pushing yourself. Rest.
It seems counterintuitive to solve a problem by leaving it alone. However, a period of rest has consistently been reported in the process of insight. This is an observable phenomenon. Repeated studies in the field of cognitive neuroscience have shown again and again that resting-state brain activity prior to solving a problem can indicate whether a problem will be solved with insight or non-insight strategies. But why is that? Why does focusing intently on the problem only frustrate it?
Researchers think it may come down to what they call, “motivational intensity.” Motivational intensity is described as how strongly you feel the urge to approach or avoid something. You can have high and low motivational intensity but still have them be positive feelings, and the same can be applied to negative feelings. For example, “pleasant,” is a positive feeling, but it has a low motivational intensity. Whereas desire is still positive, it has a high motivational intensity. A high motivational intensity drives you to narrow in on the task at hand and intently pursue your specific goal. However, this narrowed attention can prevent you from seeing the smaller details that offer the solution to your problem. It’s basically problem-solving tunnel vision. When you shift to a pleasant, low motivational intensity activity (when you remove yourself from the problem and relax) you broaden your attention, and ideas can freely interact with one another, allowing you to make connections you wouldn’t have before.
Both are key components of creative insight. A study by Roger Beaty actually suggests that people who are considered creative have a higher volume of neural connections between the network associated with focus and attentional control and the network associated with associated with imagination and spontaneity. However, insight is not limited to ‘creatives,’ and you can take advantage of this complementary neural relationship to trigger insight in your own problem-solving. Once you’ve driven yourself to pursue a challenge, allow yourself the opportunity to feel a positively-oriented low motivational intensity. Play with your dog, go for a walk or dance and work up a sweat, listen to music that makes you happy, or even just take a shower. The experience is highly personal, but it has to be one where you can relinquish any anxiety you may have. Simply stepping away and shaking your thoughts up a bit can open your mind to a slew of possibilities you have never seen before.