Aha! So That’s How We Solve Problems

ideaImportant discoveries often involve a moment of insight — the “Aha” experience — and yet the brain mechanisms responsible for these insights have remained largely unknown due to the sporadic, unpredictable, and short-lived nature of such experiences. However, in a groundbreaking study, researchers have identified specific brain areas at work during insightful problem solving.

Jiang Qiu and colleagues from the School of Psychology at the Southwest University in China used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine the activity occurring in the brain when solving “insight problems.” Participants in the study were asked to solve Chinese logogriphs, a particular type of word riddle, to attain an “Aha” experience when successfully guessing the answer. The researchers found an increase in brain activity within a network comprising specific areas (frontal, parietal, occipital, and cerebellum) during these moments of insight.

Previous research attempted to produce the elusive “Aha” experience by showing participants a problem and then revealing the answer. However, the brain mechanisms involved in merely understanding the answer may be very different from those that are involved when actively solving the problem. In this new study, Qiu and colleagues used a novel learning-testing method in which participants were first taught the art of solving these riddles using “heuristic” logogriphs (general problem-solving formulas) before being asked to solve similar logogriphs independently.

Qiu points out the analogy of their testing method with the story of Friedrich August Kekulé’s discovery of the molecular structure of benzene. In that famous moment of scientific insight, Kekulé claimed to have thought of the distinctive ring structure after dreaming of two entwined serpents. He had earlier given testimony at a murder inquest involving a serpentine ring. Qiu considers the serpentine ring, as the “key heuristic information” that lead to Kekulé’s “Aha” experience, just as the example riddles shown to the participants in their study helped them to realize the correct answers.

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