Emergence of Insight

Posted by on Apr 15, 2013 in Complexity Science | 0 comments

Emergence of Insight

Aha~ In a moment I feel excited & fulfilled because a plausible solution flashed in my head for a problem which I cannot seem to solve for hours. For scientists, it may be our common experience.

Insight is a profound experience which frequently appears unconsciously in a very short moment like light flashes in our mind. It is always interesting to understand how these moments could help us to solve complicated problems, which even intensive logical thinking cannot handle it.

This is a really important aspect in scientific progress because it involves ideas which could overcome some particularly difficult problem by a sudden discovery of another way of going about it.

A recent BBC programme (The Creative Brain: How Insight Works) tried to uncover how these moments happened and excitingly introduced some insights how can we trigger more insights when we need them badly.

In neuroscience, it is known that the left hemisphere of the brain is specialised to logical thinking; while the right is specialised to creativity. Physiologically, the hemispheres appeared to be symmetric, but what are the subtle difference which lead to the lateralisation of brain function?

To unveil the mystery of brain, scientists have made some attempts to identify the differences during the logical & creative mental processes. In the BBC programme, neuropsychologist Rex Jung of University of New Mexico showed the structure of white matter which connecting up different regions of the brain has a subtle effect to determine the intelligence & creativity of a person.

White Matter Fibers, HCP Dataset rear view

White Matter Fibers, HCP Dataset rear view

Somewhat surprising is that, unlike the intelligence, the white matter in a creative person was found to be less packed and less organised. Therefore, the traffic of signal has lengthy, deficient, and many different pathways from a to b. Rex suggested that this structure allows information to collide each other more frequently to come up with more unique & insightful ideas.

Mark Beeman of Northwestern University further studied the moments of network activity during problem solving. In his experiment, participants were asked to solve difficult problems, and reported whether they solved the problem analytically or by a sudden insight. They found there was alpha wave released in the back of the right hemisphere before the moment of insight when a problem is solved.

The insight process is a delicate mental balancing act. At first, the brain lavishes the scarce resource of attention on a single problem. But, once the brain is sufficiently focussed, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight. “The relaxation phase is crucial,” JungBeeman said. “That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers.” Another ideal moment for insights, according to the scientists, is the early morning, right after we wake up. The drowsy brain is unwound and disorganized, open to all sorts of unconventional ideas. The right hemisphere is also unusually active. We do some of our best thinking when we’re still half asleep.

One of the surprising lessons of this research is that trying to force an insight can actually prevent the insight. While it’s commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to focus, minimize distractions, and pay attention only to the relevant details, this clenched state of mind may inhibit the sort of creative connections that lead to sudden breakthroughs.

In his 1908 essay “Mathematical Creation,” Poincaré insisted that the best way to think about complex problems is to immerse yourself in the problem until you hit an impasse. Then, when it seems that “nothing good is accomplished,” you should find a way to distract yourself, preferably by going on a “walk or a journey.” The answer will arrive when you least expect it. Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, preferred the relaxed atmosphere of a topless bar, where he would sip 7 UP, “watch the entertainment,” and, if inspiration struck, scribble equations on cocktail napkins.

Source: Jonah Lehrer, Annals of Science, “The Eureka Hunt,” The New Yorker, July 28, 2008, p. 40

Making something out of nothing requires diverse but impactful connections. Instead of looking in a familiar environment or local networks, insight requires scouring of distant corners and odd memories. Insight is a moment where the brain connects two or several things together where there was none before.

Relaxation is the key for insight. In a brick test experiments in the programme, which is a common measure of creativity, participants were asked to list as many as usage of a brick. In the first 2 minutes, participants listed as many as they could come up with. Then in the next few minutes, participants were placed into 3 groups and were asked to do different tasks with lego bricks. The first group was asked to group the bricks according to the colour, the second group was asked to build a house, and the third group was asked to do nothing but wait (but the brains were certainly not in restful states). After the intermission, participants were asked to continue the brick test for further 2 minutes. As might have guessed, the group, which was asked to do the relaxing colour grouping, perform better than the rest groups. In other words, disruption of tedious work could achieve an overall better performance. (Of course, disruption does not mean avoidance.)

Further, insights are not simply free gift from god, as we have been told the way to have insights is to actively engage things which may not seem to match each other. For instance, the marriage of abstractive graph theory & programming led to the birth of Google. As such, Michael Woods has a short & clear explanation on how insight works:

The way to have insights is to be actively bothered when ideas and concepts don’t fit together exactly right. Then you think about them, more and more, sometimes consciously and sometimes in your dreams, until you figure out what it is that kept the ideas from fitting together. Understanding that and how to modify the ideas so that they fit together is insight. And once you have had an insight, since the ideas fit together now, the tension born of ideas that don’t fit together properly is gone.

That’s what insight feels like: a lifting of tension and unease originally caused by a stubborn refusal to accept that the world might not ever make perfect sense.

Therefore, a way to boost creativity is by softening focus and a broad scope of attention. It makes a higher chance for the brain to develop an interesting connection between objects. Finally, a useful suggestion by the Forbes: “Read two random articles in the newspaper and write a few sentences about how they could possibly connect. Do this over and again. It trains the brain to make further flung connection.”

If interested, there are some interesting articles worth for a further reading.

The Moment

About Alvis HT Tang

Imagine there is a cave inhabited by prisoners who have been chained since childhood. Behind the prisoners a fire casts a shadow of the surrounding including themselves onto a wall in front of them. However, they are not aware that the image on the wall is just a projection of their world.

What the prisoners see is a projection of their world on the wall. The real world is, however, not seen by them. The prisoners cannot move nor turn their head around to see outside the cave. They can never see those people or the things causing the shadows in real, but the projection of these objects. The shadow is thus regarded as the reality of the surrounding since they never see the real objects.

Now a lucky prisoner is set free. He can walk and explore the real world around. He soon discovers that the shadow he saw only displays a rough projection of a single aspect of the surrounding. The real world is much richer than he has imagined before.

Life in this cave resembles some aspects of human reality. What we see are mere projections, but the actual reality is always hidden without our awareness.

Alvis HT Tang is a practitioner of divergent and critical thinking, keen on pursuing intellectual discussion and linking knowledge to create new insights. He has an innately critical mind to find possible explanations for a phenomenon from unconventional angles. He is a lucky prisoner who is able to break the chain to contribute a better understanding of the actual world.

Alvis at the moment is an explorer of nature at the Centre for Complexity Science and Department of Mathematics at Imperial College London, with Prof. Henrik Jensen as the safari guide for his PhD degree.

His research focuses are firm dynamics, probability estimation, information flow in networks, evolution and emergence. In particular, the regularities of business patterns lead him to ponder the hidden mystery.

Before joining the group, Alvis has substantial experience in the technology sector for years. He obtained a BSc Physics degree at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a MSc Applied Mathematics degree with Distinction at Imperial College London.

Specialties: Firm Dynamics, Probability Estimation, Network Analysis, Parallel Computing, Web Technology, System Architecture

Computer Languages: CUDA, C++, Node.js, Java Script, PHP, SQL, Mongo, BigQuery, .NET (C#, VB), Mathematica, MATLAB

Research Keywords: firm dynamics dynamics non-equilibrium dynamicsevolutionary dynamics, econophysics, network stability, networks, complex systems, economic networksself-organised criticality (SOC)criticality, percolation and universality.

The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of every day thinking.

Albert Einstein