Insight generation
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Why is insight important and how can you have more

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1st Jul 2016
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It's Neuroscience Learning Month on HRZone! You're reading one of the pieces that's been written to help you develop a sound understanding of why neuroscience principles are important to business, and a basic understanding of how you can apply them effectively. There's loads more content going live over the month to help you on your way, from articles to videos and podcasts, and it's all available in our Neuroscience Learning Hub. Head there today to read more!

People tend to solve problems in two different ways. Either they work logically through the evidence, or the solution pops into their mind along with a feeling that the answer is right.

We call this insight, or an "Aha!" moment. Insight can save you lots of work and may even get you to be more productive, creative and effective, but it's seldom included in a job specification or reviewed at appraisal.

Why do we need insight?

Most problems at work tend to be complex and have more variables than our working memory can hold onto at one time.

For example, thinking about how to improve engagement, you would need to consider some or all of the following:

  • the quality and skills of your managers
  • the strategy of the company
  • the hot buttons and preferences of the CEO and multiple other stakeholders
  • survey results
  • how this fits with all the other initiatives you have going on
  • the resources you have

You'll be able to add at least three more factors to your version of this list. Improving engagement is not a linear, rational problem: there's no "right" answer.

This means that our conscious problem-solving resources are not very helpful when we're addressing these sorts of issues.

So how else can we solve these problems?

When people have insight they also have a burst of energy and a dopamine reward in the brain

Consultant David Rock says that over the years he has asked a few thousand people how they solve complex problems at work.

He consistently finds that they don't come to the solution through analysis; the answer always arrives suddenly, usually when the issue is out of conscious awareness, just as they fall asleep or wake up, during exercise, when they're the shower, or other times when their brain is not busy.

What is insight?

Insight in refers to that moment of clarity when a solution comes to you or a connection is made between new material and existing knowledge and you know instinctively that it's correct.

This happens when the brain puts together unconnected neurons, usually when it’s quiet or reflecting on something other than the issue at hand.

When people have insight they also have a burst of energy and a dopamine reward in the brain, and the process also permanently changes the brain at a physiological level by creating new neural links.

We're not talking about general creativity here - that's a process, a way of thinking and perceiving. Insight is also different to intuition, which is a nudge or a hint about the direction you need to take, rather than the whole solution.

How do insights work?

Mark Beeman of Northwestern University is probably the best-known and most respected neuroscientist working on insight. He summarises the elements that make up insight in three ways.

  • There’s unconscious processing – when solutions come to people when they're not thinking about the problem in the same way as they did before, like when someone asks a powerful question or they genuinely put themselves in someone else’s shoes.
  • There’s the relaxed mind - when someone’s calm and in a good mood.
  • And then there’s the sudden answer – this is when the solution comes, it's a surprise but they’re confident about it; they just know it’s right.

So here's a bit more detail on those elements, with the scientific evidence pointing to how insight happens and how you can create the optimum conditions for it.

Unconscious processing

Beeman's research suggests that insight tends to involve connections between small numbers of neurons.

An insight is often a long-forgotten memory or a combination of memories aligned in new ways.

These memories don't have lots of neurons linking them together, which is why we need a quiet mind to notice the new connections and the insight they provide.

The brain knows how it will solve a problem eight seconds before the conscious answer appears.

A busy mind with little down time tends to overlook the insight.

Inward-looking

Beeman has also found insight happens when we are looking ‘beyond the box’.

Our attention can be externally focused (reading this chapter) or internally focused (an image has been generated in your mind's eye by a word on the page).

We tend to flick between these two states all the time. When people have insights they are often ‘mind-wandering’, according to psychologist Jonathon Schooler, rather than focused on the problem.

Mark Beeman has recorded alpha wave activity in the visual and auditory cortex just before the moment of insight, which indicates that people shut out external stimuli to save brain resources for noticing the insight.

A relaxed, positive mind

Beeman can predict which method someone will use to solve a problem (logic or insight) by the type of activity in their brain immediately before the problem is presented to them. He says our mental state determines our approach, and also our personal preference.

In a similar study, Joydeep Bhattacharya of Goldsmiths and Bhavin Sheth of the University of Houston identified that the brain knows how it will solve a problem eight seconds before the conscious answer appears.

92-94% of insight answers were correct compared with about 80% of answers produced by logical analysis.

Sheth suggests this could be the brain capturing transformational thought in action (the ‘Aha!’ moment) before we’re consciously aware of it.

The sudden answer

So here’s slightly counterintuitive point which the science suggests: If you want insight then stop trying to solve the problem.

A distinctive feature of problem-solving is that people get stuck. They go round and round the data and the issues and can't see the solution. This happens because we tend to get fixated on a small set of solutions.

The more we work on this same wrong solution, the more we prime the brain for that solution and the harder it is to think of new ideas. Insights tend to happen when people give up, at least temporarily.

Psychologist Stellan Ohlsson's Inhibition Theory indicates that we need to inhibit the wrong solutions for the right one to come to our attention.  Also, conscious effort tends to involve a lot of neural activity, which can reduce the likelihood of noticing the quiet signals of insight.

Beeman also found that these sudden answers tend to be correct: 92-94% of insight answers were correct compared with about 80% of answers produced by logical analysis.

How to have more insight

Following on from Beeman's research we've created a shorthand model to help you remember the steps to increase insight.

But remember that first it's important to put your brain into the state that increases the chances of insight occurring: relax and put yourself in a good mood by watching a funny film or going for your favourite walk.

A guide to increasing insight:

Insight 1

Practical implications

Creating insight in the organisation

And how do we apply all this to our wider work context?

When we're solving problems in conjunction with other people at work, we tend to do the opposite of what the science indicates will be most effective.

We put pressure on ourselves with a deadline, we gather more data, we brainstorm as a group... all of which demands a lot of brain-processing and makes it hard to have insight. It also tends to reduce the range of solutions as a group conforms to consensus, collective thinking.

A better approach is to define a question as a group, then for people to individually take time off and allow their brains to process and solve the problem. The group then comes together to review and agree on the solutions.

Creating insight in practice

Insight is useful in many work contexts especially in change and learning.

You can design learning and other interventions for insight creation rather than instruction. This means:

  • Introducing new ideas in a relevant context for the person. For example, linking learning to strategy or personal goals.
  • Understanding the current mindset of the person and position content accordingly. In practice, people will all have different starting points so designing content to be flexible and ensuring that outcomes can happen at different times is important. This requires for example, facilitators who understand the overall goals and who can think on their feet, monitoring where individuals are and then using the things that happen in the room to make links. They should also know when to push a point home and when to leave it for reflection.
  • Using powerful questions to generate insight, as in offering new and different perspectives such as stories, personal anecdotes and external examples.
  • Giving people time to reflect is essential and design in active reflection tools, especially when the stakeholders for the programme or event believe people need to be busy. We use techniques like coaching on the go, which provides all the benefits of coaching whilst they’re walking. The movement seems to reduce inhibitions and free up thinking space.
  • Designing programmes and events with an overnight stay, say from lunchtime to lunchtime. This provides participants with the natural downtime of sleep (see our series on productivity) which is known to enhance the making of new connections.

Insights can be fleeting, so it’s important to capture them when they do happen and to fix them in the mind.

So try reinforcing them by discussing them, setting goals about their application, applying them to a current situation or to oneself - or using the insight experientially whereby you incorporate it into a new habit plan or a briefing for the team.

It's Neuroscience Learning Month on HRZone! You're reading one of the pieces that's been written to help you develop a sound understanding of why neuroscience principles are important to business, and a basic understanding of how you can apply them effectively. There's loads more content going live over the month to help you on your way, from articles to videos and podcasts, and it's all available in our Neuroscience Learning Hub. Head there today to read more!

References

Here are references to the science mentioned in the article:

David Rock (2009). Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long. HarperBusiness.
Mark Jung-Beeman, Azurii Collier and John Kounios (2008). How insight happens: learning from the brain. NeuroLeadership Journal 1.
Bhavin Sheth, Simone Sandkühler and Joydeep Bhattacharya (2008). Posterior beta and anterior gamma predict cognitive insight. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 21(7).
Stellan Ohlsson (2011). Deep Learning: How the Mind Overrides Experience. Cambridge University Press.

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