When was the last time you had a eureka! or an aha! moment?
When after struggling to find a solution to a difficult problem the answer dawned on you in a moment of clarity like a light switching on in your head?
Perhaps you were trying to figure out how to resolve a sticky interpersonal dilemma or solve a challenging problem at work. Maybe you were trying to find the solution to 32-across in the Sunday New York Times crossword.
Psychologists refer to these sorts of problems that lack a clear solution and require a shift in perspective to be solved as insight problems. If you ever wished you could be more insightful and creative in solving problems, recent research suggests that maybe you can be.
In psychology research people’s insight problem-solving abilities are usually assessed by asking them to find solutions to problems such as this: A prisoner was attempting to escape from a tower. He found a rope in his cell that was half as long enough to permit him to reach the ground safely. He divided the rope in half, tied the two parts together, and escaped. How could he have done this?
Solving this and other insight problems requires more than just linear and logical thought and standard intelligence. It also requires the ability to reconsider how the problem is framed i.e. to “think outside the box” and consider multiple possible approaches to finding a solution. Once the problem is framed correctly, the solution pops out suddenly, creating the eureka or aha effect: the feeling the answer was right under one’s nose all along.
So how might we become more creative and insightful when faced with life’s puzzles? Two recently published studies in the journal Consciousness and Cognition show that mindfulness may help.
The first study showed that people with higher baseline levels of mindfulness (i.e. people who scored higher on a mindfulness questionnaire) had better scores on tests of insight problem-solving ability.
This effect was not due to improved mood or the ability to solve other sorts (non-insight) of problems better.
The second study provided evidence for a possible causal association between mindfulness and insight problem-solving ability and suggests that insight problem-solving abilities can be developed. This study showed that after a brief 10-minute mindfulness training session in which participants to bring non-judgmental awareness to bodily sensations, people’s performance on insight problems improved. They were able to solve more problems like the prisoner’s escape problem but not more non-insight problems.
So why might mindfulness help people solve insight problems? There are several possible reasons.
One may be that when we practice mindfulness we practice beginner’s mind: seeing things with bare attention as if for the first time.
When we are not mindful we may be constrained (or imprisoned!) by habitual ways of perceiving events in the world around us based on past experience.
Usually when we divide a rope in half we cut it into two even pieces. Unless someone points out that an alternative is possible it’s easy become mentally trapped in the perspective that this is the only way to divide a rope!
However, this habitual response will not free the prisoner.
Solving an insight problem requires seeing things in a new way to generate a non-habitual response. If we were to see the rope with a beginner’s mind we might come to the realization that there is more than one way to divide a rope.
Mindfulness may help us solve insight problems because it may allow us to “forget at the right time” and let go of our habitual ideas about how things are and how things can be done.
Through practicing mindful awareness of the present moment we may allow become aware of a wider range of possibilities and enhance our creativity and insight problem-solving abilities. For example we may become aware of the possibility of unraveling the rope lengthwise and tying the remaining strands together.
Similarly, bringing beginner’s mind to an interpersonal dilemma or a problem at work and practicing non-judgmental awareness of our thoughts and feelings about the situation may improve our perception and discernment of problem components and allow us to flexibly and creatively experiment with new ways of perceiving the situation (i.e. reframing).
In this way regular mindfulness practice may not only improve our ability to solve tricky riddles but also to solve real-life insight problems.
Ostafin, B.D. & Kassman, K.T. (2012). Stepping out of history: Mindfulness improves insight problem solving. Conciousness and Cognition, 21 (2), 1031- 1036.
I'm a psychologist and mindfulness teacher based in Edmonton, Alberta.