Information analysis, followed by step-by-step logical deduction is often our go-to method to solve problems we encounter in life. Yet, for some problems we seem to suddenly gain insight – we realize the solution in an “Aha!” kind of moment. Known as ‘insight problems’, they can seem impossible or unsolvable until creative insight appears and a solution is unexpectedly realized.
Is it possible to increase the likelihood of the arrival of such creative insight? PhD candidate Ruben Laukkonen along with Dr. Jason Tangen at the University of Queensland in Australia, have recently published a study in the journal Consciousness and Cognition suggesting that it is.
“We might be taking a walk, riding a bike, or having a shower, when we finally understand something we’ve been struggling with. One goal of this study, and ongoing research, is to understand what it is about those situations that evoke epiphanies,” Laukkonen says.
Bistable Images: Changes Of Perspective
The authors were able to increase the rate of solving insight-type problems using a novel approach, involving what are known as ‘bi-stable images.’ Specifically, they used an image of a ‘Necker cube’ – an ambiguous line drawing of a simple cube that has two possible interpretations of the location of the front and rear of the cube.
They hypothesized that both bi-stable images and insightful problems could engage neural regions known to play a role in resolving competing interpretations. Remarkably, their findings showed that participants were able to creatively solve more insight problems when they were presented after multiple instances of perceiving each conflicting interpretation of the Necker cube.
The insight problems were verbal riddles, for example:
“Marsha and Marjorie were born on the same day of the same month of the same year to the same mother and the same father yet they are not twins. How is that possible?”
Importantly, arriving at possible interpretations of the images and solutions to these insight problems both require a change in perspective to realize all conflicting interpretations. Lead author Ruben Laukkonen says:
“Although one problem is verbal and the other is visual, they both contain multiple interpretations or different perspectives. They can also—at least we argue—induce conflict in our minds between these two perspectives. And therefore to solve the problem, we need to step back and choose a more appropriate (usually counter-intuitive) perspective. “
Critically, participants were able to solve significantly more insight problems after viewing the Necker cube than after viewing unambiguous interpretations of the Necker cube.
Conflict Monitoring Theory
As a possible explanation for their findings, they advocate the Conflict Monitoring Theory of cognitive control.
The theory proposes that when competing interpretations or solutions are encountered, activation in a brain region known as the anterior cingulate cortex triggers cognitive mechanisms that can resolve the conflict.
Specifically, they state that both the Necker cube image and insight problems engage a network known as the Conflict Monitoring System, in a shared manner, despite their difference in modality.
“Put simply, the shared resources are part of the task rather than the stimulus… What this study suggests is that if you’re considering information that contradicts your view, viewing a Necker cube will put you in a state-of-mind that will make insights or creative solutions more likely.”
The study highlights the role of examining competing or even undesired perspectives for effective problem solving.
If you are wondering what the answer to the example insight problem above is: they are triplets. (or quintuplets, or…)
Laukkonen, R. E., & Tangen, J. M. (2017)
Can observing a Necker cube make you more insightful?
Consciousness and Cognition, 48, 198-211
Author: Philip Jaekl. Top Image: The duck-rabbit image, a famous example of bistable perception, created by psychologist Joseph Jastrow in 1899 to demonstrate how the brain can switch between different interpretations of the same sensory information. Credit: Wikimedia commons