The reality of unconscious mental processing leading sometimes to the Aha! moment is increasingly recognized by the scientific community. Research attention is shifting to conducting experiments with an aim to understand more about this effect. A study just published in Thinking & Reasoning (2017) is called “Insightful solutions are correct more often than analytic solutions”. The authors (Salvi, Kounios, Beeman, Bowden, and Bricolo) conducted a variety of puzzles comparing insightful solutions to analytically determined answers. They were able to show that those answers coming into consciousness from unconscious processing were more likely to be correct than answers constructed through conscious reasoning. A timed deadline was imposed on each puzzle which created anxiety among test subjects. A majority of answers tossed out just before the imposed deadline appeared to be either a guess or analytically derived and often wrong. The authors conclude that encouraging insightful solutions to learning and problem solving requires a relaxed atmosphere where the factor of time is not present. The need for incubation time is mentioned in my book on page 56 where an argument is made that formal education is too often run by the clock thus imposing a deadline on thought. As this research report indicates, deadlines short circuit the use of intuitive processes hence sometimes leading to wrong solutions.
When setting out to write my book on tacit knowledge, I aimed attention upon current research in neuroscience to uncover evidence that Polanyi was correct in his description of tacit knowledge as a subconscious mental processing activity. Since the publication of my book, I discovered a 2013 study by Creswell, Bursley, and Satpute (Carnegie Mellon and Northeastern Universities) that was hailed as the first neural evidence for unconscious thought processing at work. The investigators offered participants information about desirable and undesirable characteristics of four hypothetical automobiles. One of the cars was by design obviously better, one was worse, and the other two merely ok. Experimental conditions offered some participants an opportunity to consciously evaluate the characteristics of the vehicles and rate them. Others were asked for an immediate ranking (no time to consciously think about it) and the third group had to complete a demanding cognitive task (using up their conscious awareness) before ranking the vehicles. The best rankings curiously came from the group that was mentally tied up with the competing conscious task. Apparently, while engrossed in that task, an unconscious mental processing was underway that led to the best ranking in comparison to those who offered an immediate ranking or those who consciously thought about the rankings. To prove the existence of this unconscious processing system in the brain, all subjects were hooked up to a functional magnetic resonance imaging device. Brain activation was monitored during the trials. The investigators were able to demonstrate that certain brain regions associated with the rating task were activated during the competing cognitive task hence offering those participants access to portions of their brains that performed the ratings unconsciously. Skeptics for the presence of unconscious mental operations are gradually losing the battle!
I like seeing recent published research supporting the tacit theory of knowledge (one of the purposes I had in mind when writing my book). Polanyi explained the “Aha” effect by identifying a subconscious process he called the “tacit integration.” Today psychologists refer to this as “insight” and a crew of investigators set out to discover if insightful solutions to puzzles were more accurate than solutions formed from conscious, analytical thinking. A series of word and visual puzzles challenged participant subjects and their task was to come up with an answer to the puzzles. If they used a process of systematic conscious thinking, (such as trial and error) they identified their solution as analytical but if the solution popped into their heads in a mysterious spontaneous manner, they recognized the solution as having come from insight. One example of such a puzzle required finding a word that could combine with three others to form a sensible compound word. For example, take the words “crab,” “pine,” and “sauce.” What single additional word will work with these three? I must admit I am terrible at doing this, struggled for many minutes trying in my mind several examples, and finally decided upon the word “red.” This attempt gave me the combinations “red crab,” “red pine,” and “red sauce.” The weakness of this conscious choice was evident yet it was all I could do. It turns out my word was wrong, worse yet, I took considerably longer than the 16 seconds allowed for finding an answer. Those participants in the study who found a word through insight were nearly always correct while the analytically derived words failed a third of the time. A similar pattern occurred with the visual puzzles. The researchers concluded that an unconscious quick idea popping into your head is more likely to be a good one than a studiously analyzed result ground out consciously by the mind. Applying this result to an educational setting strengthens the case for structuring learning around generating tacit integrations, a subject covered in my book. By the way, have you come up with the right word? Try “apple”. The research was published in the Journal Thinking and Reasoning under the title: “Insightful solutions are correct more often than analytic solutions”. Authors of the study include Carola Salvi, John Kounios, Mark Beeman, Edward Bowden, and Emanuela Bricolo.