Prepared brains achieve insight

Sudden verbal insights arise from distinct brain operations that focus attention and facilitate access to word knowledge, a new investigation suggests.

A team led by John Kounios of Drexel University in Philadelphia used electric sensors on people’s scalps and functional magnetic resonance imaging to track brain activity in 44 volunteers. The researchers took measurements in the seconds while each participant contemplated solutions to word problems. For each problem, volunteers viewed three words—say, pine, crab, and sauce—and tried to think of another word—such as apple—that could be combined with each of them to form larger words.

Participants solved nearly half of such problems correctly. During the experiment, they reported when solutions came to them in sudden, “Aha!” flashes or as a result of slow deliberations.

Brain measurements indicated that sudden, insightful solutions followed activity in areas toward the front of the brain that suppress unwanted thoughts and generate word associations. In contrast, deliberative solutions followed activity in regions at the back of the brain that increase a person’s visual attention. In the October Psychological Science, the researchers speculate that the increase in visual attention reflects focus on an external problem.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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