"Aha" Moment

When you’re trying to solve a problem, there are a couple ways you can get to a solution. Sometimes you have to fight your way forward one step at a time. Other times the light bulb just goes off over your head and you know the answer.

Albert Einstein was famous for having the light bulb go off over his head. He described how his groundbreaking new ideas often came to him all at once as flashes of insight.

Even for those of us who don’t have revolutionary solutions to physics problems spontaneously pop into our minds while we’re grocery shopping, we can still have our share of “aha” moments when we suddenly see an answer we’ve been looking for.

But should you trust your out-of-the-blue insights? Maybe going at things in a logical, predictable, step-by-step manner is more likely to lead you to a correct solution.

Or maybe not. Analysis may be overrated, according to a study published earlier this year.

In their experiment, the researchers gave people four different kinds of linguistic and visual problems to solve. For example, one of the linguistic tasks was to find anagrams of words and one of the visual tasks was to look at incomplete drawings and guess what object was being represented.

An “insight” approach would be to just suddenly stare at these problems until you suddenly see the solutions. An “analytic” approach would be to gradually keep rearranging the letters or adding lines to the drawing, getting closer to identifying the relevant word or object.

Participants in the study used a mixture of both approaches to solve the problems. For every kind of problem, however, insight solutions turned out to be more accurate than analytic ones.

On the anagram task, for example, 98 percent of the insight answers people gave and 92 percent of analytic answers were right. On the visual task, the discrepancy was more extreme: 78 percent of the insight solutions and 42 percent of the analytic solutions were correct!

Obviously, not all problems can be solved via insight. I’d love it if my taxes would do themselves in one single “aha” moment, but I suspect I’m going to have to take an analytic approach and go line by line.

The takeaway from the research, though, is that at least for some types of problems, insight solutions can be significantly more accurate on average. When the light bulb goes off over our heads, then, we should probably listen and seriously consider that our intuition could be right.

Image: Flickr/Matt Wynn