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.
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.