Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Aha!

We scientists spend a suprising amount of our time in thinly disguised drudgery, but moments of genuine insight,and the ability to act creatively on them, make up a huge perk which brings us back to the bench. Psychologists have historically used several criteria to distinguish insight-based problem solving from regular schlepping along. Solvers must get stuck, coming to an impasse in solving the problem. Then, some sort of processing occurs-- the solvers have trouble saying exactly what. Then--pow!-- the light bulb flashes. A solution arises, and the solvers immediately recognize the rightness of this solution, and often are psyched as hell. But what's going on in the brain?

Advances in imaging technology are enabling scientists to look at how the human brain does its amazing job. fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging, is fast enough to allow scientists to see rapid (about 5 seconds) changes in brain activity. Early last year, scientists used this technique to investigate brain activity during the experience of insight.

To find out what goes on behind the curtain during insight, the researchers designed a set of verbal puzzles that would be solved insightfully about half the time, and more conventionally about half the time. Volunteers who were given the puzzles were asked to report whether they solved it by insight or by grinding by pressing an indicator button. Analysis of fMRI images showed that self-reported insightful episodes were associated with more brain activity in the right anterior superior temporal gyrus. The authors cite earlier studies of this brain area to speculate that the elevated activity represents a churn of semantic processing needed to solve the verbal problems. The scientists then used a second imaging technology, EEG, on a new set of volunteers, to confirm the activity in this region. In the EEG work, they even found a second electrical signature which seemed to correspond to a shift from unconscious to conscious knowledge of the solution.

It is important to realize that fMRI is being used to report differences in brain activity, which is why the authors had to take such care to match the volunteers' activities in every respect except the feature they were looking for. In fact, the major result of this work is that insightful problem solving really can be distinguished from other modes of arriving at an answer. You'd expect that a really thorny problem would tax many parts of the brain, regardless of the mode by which the answer was produced. In my own experience, insightful or "aha" progress, in which the nub of a problem finally becomes apparent, is usually followed very closely by a more conventional brainstorm or fleshing-out of the idea.

Meanwhile, the Mozarts all around me never even seemed to break a sweat. I wonder how they do it.

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