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Science Finds 'aha!' Moments Are Better Than Slow, Analytical Thinking

Go with your gut.

10 MAR 2016

When it comes to difficult puzzles, we're often told to take our time and think the problem through carefully, as any impulsive responses we come up with stand a good chance of being wrong. But a new study suggests it might be better to trust your gut after all.

Researchers in the US say that Eureka or Aha! moments – when all the pieces of a puzzle suddenly fall into place so we can spot the solution to a difficult problem – are real, and that instances of sudden insight are actually more reliable than finding an answer via the drawn-out process of methodical thought.


"Conscious, analytic thinking can sometimes be rushed or sloppy, leading to mistakes while solving a problem," said John Kounios from Drexel University. "However, insight is unconscious and automatic – it can't be rushed."

To test their hypothesis that Aha! moments could deliver more accurate responses than analytical thinking, Kounios and his team challenged participants with a range of puzzles. Some were linguistic puzzles, some visual-based, and others combined both linguistic and visual elements.

In the linguistic puzzles, the participants had to perform tasks such as finding the right word given a number of related word clues. In visual puzzles, an image might be scrambled, and they'd have to say what they thought the unscrambled image originally depicted.

In either case, each experiment consisted of between 50 and 180 puzzles, with each puzzle being limited to about 15 seconds. Once participants gave their response, they reported whether they came to the solution through a moment of insight or via a process of analytical thinking.

The findings, reported in Thinking & Reasoning, suggest that insight – or at least the extent to which participants chalked up their success to insight – wins out over analytical thought.

In the linguistic puzzles, 94 percent of insight responses were correct, against 78 percent for analytic thinking. In visual puzzles the contrast was even more pronounced: 78 percent versus 42 percent.

Of course, research like this is only as solid as the participants' self-reporting – and in experiments like this, their perceived sense of how they arrived at the solutions is a pretty blurry concept to accurately measure – but even so, the observable gap between insight and analytic thinking is interesting to note.

According to the researchers, one of the reasons analytic responses fared poorly against insight is because the puzzles were timed – leading to rushed, late responses with just seconds to spare, often the result of guessing based on analytical but incomplete deduction.

"Deadlines create a subtle – or not so subtle – background feeling of anxiety," said Kounios. "Anxiety shifts one's thinking from insightful to analytic. Deadlines are helpful to keep people on task, but if creative ideas are needed, it's better to have a soft target date. A drop-dead deadline will get results, but they are less likely to be creative results."

Which isn't to say sudden moments of insight will necessarily help you to solve any kind of problem. As the researchers point out, complex problems that have known strategic solutions – such as arithmetic, for example – are often best solved via analytic thinking.

But for puzzles where a set path hasn't already been well established, waiting for your insight to surface might just be the better approach.

"This means that in all kinds of personal and professional situations, when a person has a genuine, sudden insight, then the idea has to be taken seriously," said Kounios. "It may not always be correct, but it can have a higher probability of being right than an idea that is methodically worked out."

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