Cognitive Insight And Its Neural Mechanism
Despite the widespread evidence and importance of cognitive insight, very little is known about its constituent cognitive components and their underlying neural mechanism.
Animation of the last half second (from -0.5 to -0.2) of high-frequency electrical activity at the scalp prior to the button press indicating subjects had solved a problem with insight.
Researchers at Goldsmiths College, London investigated brain rhythms and their dynamics while human volunteers solved verbal problems. Often, the participants reached a state of mental block and could not progress further: excessive amount of gamma brain rhythm (the same rhythm gets enhanced with selective attention) might cause this mental road block. It clearly indicates that focusing or attending too much on a topic might have a detrimental effect.
Afterwards, clues were provided yet they were not always successfully utilized, and the researchers found that it was possible to predict the success or failure based on the brain state prior to the clue presentation.
They also found that when the volunteers were consciously aware that they were having a strong breakthrough in their mental strategies, they were less likely to feel the suddenness of Aha!. Bhattacharya and colleagues show that a strong Aha! sensation involves minimal metacognitive (monitoring of one’s own thoughts) processes and unconscious restructuring or, better, an automatic, subconscious recombination of information which stands in contrast to conscious mental restructuring which is an attention-demanding process involving executive control. The study shows that it is possible to identify these processes before they reach the level of verbal awareness.
Arguably, insight lies at the core of human intelligence, so its proper understanding in terms of a set of underlying neural mechanisms will not only influence the immediate fields of psychology and cognitive neuroscience but also exert sold impact on a range of scientific and educational disciplines. The pedagogical importance is also noteworthy.
For example, a better understanding of complex problem solving behaviour of human subjects will facilitate a better strategy of teaching and enhancing the performance of pupils, formulation of efficient solution strategies which, in turn, enhances the creativity.
(2008) PLoS ONE 3(1): e1459. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0001459
Deconstructing Insight: EEG Correlates of Insightful Problem Solving.
Sandkühler S, Bhattacharya J
Cognitive insight phenomenon lies at the core of numerous discoveries. Behavioral research indicates four salient features of insightful problem solving: (i) mental impasse, followed by (ii) restructuring of the problem representation, which leads to (iii) a deeper understanding of the problem, and finally culminates in (iv) an “Aha!” feeling of suddenness and obviousness of the solution. However, until now no efforts have been made to investigate the neural mechanisms of these constituent features of insight in a unified framework.
In an electroencephalographic study using verbal remote associate problems, we identified neural correlates of these four features of insightful problem solving. Hints were provided for unsolved problems or after mental impasse. Subjective ratings of the restructuring process and the feeling of suddenness were obtained on trial-by-trial basis. A negative correlation was found between these two ratings indicating that sudden insightful solutions, where restructuring is a key feature, involve automatic, subconscious recombination of information. Electroencephalogram signals were analyzed in the space×time×frequency domain with a nonparametric cluster randomization test. First, we found strong gamma band responses at parieto-occipital regions which we interpreted as (i) an adjustment of selective attention (leading to a mental impasse or to a correct solution depending on the gamma band power level) and (ii) encoding and retrieval processes for the emergence of spontaneous new solutions. Secondly, we observed an increased upper alpha band response in right temporal regions (suggesting active suppression of weakly activated solution relevant information) for initially unsuccessful trials that after hint presentation led to a correct solution. Finally, for trials with high restructuring, decreased alpha power (suggesting greater cortical excitation) was observed in right prefrontal area.
Our results provide a first account of cognitive insight by dissociating its constituent components and potential neural correlates.