Shall we play a game?
What word can connect all three of these words?
Here's a picture to give you time to think - be warned though, looking at the picture may stop you finding the answer (more on this below).
Got it? That’s right; ‘apple’ can go with them all: pineapple; crab apple; apple sauce.
There are two ways of coming to the answer:
- Analytic logic: did you run through a series of possible matching words until you found the right association? For example, saying: “Does ‘cake’ work? No. Does ‘cone’ work? No. Does ‘tree’ work? No. Does ‘apple’ work? Yes.”
- Unconscious Insight: did you have a moment of pure insight, where your brain leapt to the right answer? You somehow just knew it, with no conscious thought process?
Humans do both, but the neurological process that drives insight, those amazing a-ha moments we all have, has been little understood until recently.
Neuroscientist Dr. Mark Beeman at Northwestern University is using puzzles and brain imaging to understand how insight works. His team have discovered that when an insight occurs different areas of our brains are active than when we reason analytically. The research has identified that a part of the brain above our right ear (specifically the anterior superior temporal gyrus) emits an intense burst of gamma brain waves when an insight happens. As Dr. Beeman says, “The dendrites – the pieces of the neurons that collect information - actually branch differently on the left and right side, characteristically having broader branching in the right hemisphere, so that each neuron is collecting information from a broader source of inputs and this allows them to find connections that might not be evident otherwise.”
So, here’s objective evidence of association occurring naturally in the brain, making connections between distant concepts, in a flash of insight. It seems that associative technology really does reflect the way that we think when we gain insight.
Interestingly, given all the attention on visualization at the moment, neuroscience research has found that although insights can be prompted by visual cues, the brain activity that generates insight is explicitly non-visual. As Professor John Kounios at Drexel University explains: “At the a-ha moment there’s a burst in the right temporal lobe… but if you go about a second before that there’s a burst of alpha waves in the back of the head on the right side. Now strangely enough the back of the brain accomplishes visual processing and alpha is known to reflect brain areas shutting down.”
In other words just before an insight the brain closes down part of the visual cortex.
“You have all this visual information flooding in; your brain momentarily shuts down some of that visual information – sort of like closing your eyes… so the brain does its own ‘blinking’ and that allows very faint ideas to bubble up to the surface as an insight”. Prof Kounios continues: “Think of it this way – when you ask somebody a difficult question, you’ll often notice that they’ll look away or they might close their eyes or look down. They’ll look anywhere but at a face which is very distracting. If your attention is directed inwardly then you’re more likely to solve the problem with a flash of insight.”
The key point here is that while visualization is very useful and compelling, used in isolation (or too extensively) it’s not the most powerful driver of insightful thinking.
Time for one final game: what word can link these four words?
Got it? I’m sure you have. So what was it for you, analytic logic or pure insight? If it was insight did you catch yourself looking away so your brain could blink!?
Notes: 1) This subject of this blog and the quotes in it came from a fantastic BBC Horizon documentary. 2) I’m aware that the word puzzles in this blog may not be as effective for readers whose first language is not English - I hope that doesn’t undermine its interest for those of you. 3) Distracting image source (creative commons sharealike license).