A new study shows that patterns of brain activity before people even see a problem predict if they will solve it with or without such an insight, and these brain activity patterns are likely linked to distinct types of mental preparation. Previous research by the same team showed that the brain functions differently when a person arrives at these sudden solutions, as compared to methodical solutions. The current study reveals that the distinct patterns of brain activity leading to "sudden moments of insight begin much earlier than the time the problem is solved.
The research seemingly suggests that people can mentally prepare to have a sudden solution even before a problem is presented. That is, as people prepare for problems that they solve with insight, the pattern of their brain activity suggests that they are focusing attention inwardly, switching from one thought to another, and switching of irrelevant thought. These findings are important because they show that people can mentally prepare to solve problems with different thinking styles and that these different forms of preparation can be identified with specific patterns of brain activity.
In the research team's previous study showed that just prior to the sudden solution, after a person has been working on solving a problem, the brain momentarily reduces visual inputs, much similar to a person shutting his or her eyes or looking away to help concentrate on the solution. The new study further suggests that the mental preparation involving inward focus of attention promotes insight even before the problem is presented. It could therefore be that how a person is thinking before solving the problem is just as important as the kind of thinking involved in reaching the solution, and perhaps even determines whether the solution will be derived with a sudden insight.
The participants in this new study were presented with a series of word puzzles. Each problem consisted of three words (for example, tank, hill, secret), and participants were asked to think of a single word that could form a compound or common phrase with each of the three words. People generally solve problems with a sudden flash of thought as it pops into their mind or they analyse the problem systematically till they reach a correct solution.
Two parallel experiments were conducted where participants were asked to solve problems while brain activity was monitored either with electroencephalograms (EEG), which provide accurate timing information and approximate anatomical information, or with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which gives a more precise location of active brain areas, but with less accurate timing. The researchers focused on neural activity that occurred during the period just before each problem was displayed.
The two brain imaging techniques displayed similar results and showed a different pattern of brain activity prior to problems that they subsequently solved with a sudden flash of thought as compared to the pattern of brain activity prior to problems they solved more methodically.
Mental preparation that led to insight solutions were generally characterized by increased brain activity in temporal lobe areas associated with conceptual processing, and with frontal lobe areas associated with cognitive control or "top-down" processing. It is noted that problem solvers could use cognitive control to switch their train of thought when stuck on a problem, or possibly to suppress irrelevant thoughts, such as those related to the previous problem. In contrast, preparation that led to more methodical solutions involved increased neural activity in the visual cortex at the back of the brain this suggests that preparation for deliberate problem solving simply involved more external focus of attention on the video monitor on which the problem would be displayed.
This study hopes it may eventually lead to an understanding of how to put people in the optimal "frame of mind" to deal with particular types of problems.