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While there are well-known anecdotes and documented insight cases by renowned scientists and inventors, little is known about the experiences of insight in the general population. The present study aimed to determine peoples' self-reported experience of insight in their daily lives. Using an online questionnaire, responses were obtained from 1,114 respondents. Eighty-percent reported having insights. These respondents reported demographic information and answered three open-ended questions on where their insights occur, what insights are and other thoughts on insight. A greater percentage of those who have insights are, female, younger, highly educated, and involved in occupations including, management, sciences, arts and service professions. The qualitative results uncovered eight major themes, reflecting on the places people have insights: At night, work, shower, home, when it is quiet, transport, while exercising, and in nature. Two major themes emerged on what insights are: Something from the subconscious, and a result of (not) thinking. Finally, three major themes emerged from the third question on thoughts they would like to share on insight: The improvement of insight with age, the importance of analyzing the details of the problem, and the unexpectedness of the solution. Results are discussed in the context of the current experimental research on insight.
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LINDA A. OVINGTON
ANTHONY J. SALIBA
CARMEN C. MORAN
JEREMY GOLDRING
JASMINE B. MACDONALD
Do People Really Have Insights in the Shower?
The When, Where and Who of the Aha!Moment
ABSTRACT
While there are well-known anecdotes and documented insight cases by renowned sci-
entists and inventors, little is known about the experiences of insight in the general pop-
ulation. The present study aimed to determine peoples’ self-reported experience of
insight in their daily lives. Using an online questionnaire, responses were obtained from
1,114 respondents. Eighty-percent reported having insights. These respondents reported
demographic information and answered three open-ended questions on where their
insights occur, what insights are and other thoughts on insight. A greater percentage of
those who have insights are, female, younger, highly educated, and involved in occupa-
tions including, management, sciences, arts and service professions. The qualitative
results uncovered eight major themes, reflecting on the places people have insights: At
night, work, shower, home, when it is quiet, transport, while exercising, and in nature.
Two major themes emerged on what insights are: Something from the subconscious, and
a result of (not) thinking. Finally, three major themes emerged from the third question
on thoughts they would like to share on insight: The improvement of insight with age,
the importance of analyzing the details of the problem, and the unexpectedness of the
solution. Results are discussed in the context of the current experimental research on
insight.
Keywords: insight, problem-solving, creativity, qualitative.
Insight is defined as the sudden understanding of a problem and its solution (Mayer,
1995), often after a period of incubation (Gilhooly, Georgiou, & Devery, 2013) or when
an impasse is reached while working on a difficult or ambiguous problem (Dominowski
& Dallob, 1995). The process of overcoming the impasse usually occurs outside of aware-
ness (Gick & Lockhart, 1995). That is, the solution arrives unexpectedly and also as a
“whole” (Maier, 1930). These unexpected solutions often arise at a time when not think-
ing about the related problem and can result in the Aha! or “Eureka” experience. Insight
problems are inherently difficult due to the lack of a clear strategy or a faulty conception
of the problem; when restructuring of the concepts leads to a correct understanding, the
1The Journal of Creative Behavior, Vol. 0, Iss. 0, pp. 1–18 ©2015 by the Creative Education Foundation, Inc. ÓDO I: 10.1002/jocb.126
solution pops into awareness (Weisberg, 1995). In contrast, analytical solutions are
arrived at through conscious, discrete stages (Metcalfe & Wiebe, 1987) and rely on previ-
ously learned solutions. Analytical problems are clear, and relatively easy to comprehend,
as such, no restructuring is required. Some problems are classified as hybrid problems in
that they can be solved through insight or analysis (Weisberg, 1995). How the solver
reaches the solution will depend on their level of experience with the problem, or their
initial representation of the problem (Bowden, 1997).
Another characteristic feature of insight is the subjective (intuitive) sense of correct-
ness in the solution (Ohlsson, 1992). There are numerous examples of insights associated
with well-known figures (e.g., Isaac Newton and J. K. Rowling). Other widely known
insights by prominent people have contributed profoundly to modern society. For exam-
ple, Alexander Fleming’s discovery of Penicillin, and mathematician Henri Poincare’s
contribution to geometric theory (Irvine, 2014). Alfred Russel Wallace described his real-
ization about the law of natural selection, which answered the origin of the species ques-
tion, as a “sudden flash of insight” (Linnean Society of London, 1908). In all of these
examples, the solution came unexpectedly, as a whole and solved a problem (e.g., cre-
ative, theoretical, or made a discovery).
Many of these documented insights came from scientists and inventors. It might be
the case that this population predominantly have more insights than the general popula-
tion, given that their careers require them to solve problems on a daily basis. It may be
the case that everybody experiences insights to varying degrees. However, this is yet to be
investigated.
The times and places when Eureka moments occur seem to share some common
featuresfor example, while travelling or bathing, and often late at night or early in
the morning. For example, J.K. Rowling was on a train when “...the idea for Harry
Potter simply fell into my head.” (Rowling, n.d.). Kary Mullis was driving when, “‘Dear
Thor!,’ I exclaimed. I had solved the most annoying problems in DNA chemistry in a
single lightning bolt.” (Mullis, 1993)he had invented the Polymerase Chain Reaction
(PCR) winning him the Nobel Prize. Physiologist Walter Cannon (1976, p. 63) reported
that as a child he would sleep on the problem of how to fix a broken toy and the correct
solution would “appear at daybreak”. Experimental research has demonstrated some evi-
dence that REM (rapid eye movement) sleep increases insight problem-solving (Stickgold
& Walker, 2004; Walker, Liston, Hobson, & Stickgold, 2002).
While we have anecdotal evidence of time and place, as noted above, the empirical
research into insight has not focused on this. Rather it has investigated mood and cogni-
tive states. Currently, the research has found that a positive mood (Subramaniam, Kou-
nios, Parrish, & Jung-Beeman, 2008), mind wandering (Smallwood & Schooler, 2014),
intelligence (Davidson & Sternberg, 1984), and mindfulness (Ostafin & Kassman, 2012)
can increase the likelihood of these experiences. Non-invasive brain stimulation has also
been shown to significantly improve insight problem-solving (Chi & Snyder, 2011).
Mood and cognitive states lend themselves well to empirical research, as they can be
induced and measured empirically. However, the data collected from these studies are on
the insights that occur while the experiment is being conducted (i.e., while the respon-
dents are attending to the problem); natural insights often come when we are not attend-
ing to the problem. The limitations of this is that it does not measure insights which
occur spontaneously in natural times and places, nor does the broader question of how
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Do People Really Have Insights
many, in what contexts and where insights occur. For this reason, perhaps the most
appropriate means of investigating insight with real world meaning is through qualitative
methods which seek participants’ self-reports on actual spontaneous insight experiences.
Self-report measures are appropriate for measuring experiences and perceptions where
the topic of interest has no perceivable, negative consequence (McCroskey, Daly, &
McCroskey, 1984). We do not expect that questions concerning insight experience will
be perceived as having a negative consequence, nor do we expect it to elicit socially desir-
able responses. Moreover, due to the intensity to which one experiences an insight, it is
not likely that people will have difficulty in remembering these events. A recent qualita-
tive study on insights in the general population by Klein and Jarosz (2011) obtained 120
examples of insight through interviews, media accounts, and other sources. From these
results, they found three pathways leading to an insight. First through detecting contra-
dictions in information that appears to be related. Second, via a breakthrough after an
impasse. Third, through seeing a connection between seemingly unrelated concepts. This
study did not examine the circumstances of time and place, and the individual’s experi-
ences of natural insights.
STUDY AIMS AND HYPOTHESES
The overall objective of the study is to report the experiences of insight in the gen-
eral population and to provide any further ideas about the nature of insight that have
not been considered previously. Specific aims of the current study are fourfold; the first
takes a quantitative approach and the final three aims will be approached qualitatively.
The first aim is to investigate the “who”; that is, whether all people in the sample expe-
rience insights and if not, to find out what proportion of the population do have
insights. If only a proportion of people have insights, then a demographic profile of
these people will be constructed. The second aim is to uncover and report the circum-
stances, time, and concurrent activity for which insights occur (i.e., the “where and
when”). If the anecdotes are correct, it is expected that respondents will report more
experiences of insight at night (e.g., going to sleep, during the night, and upon waking).
Insight experiences may also be reported more commonly while in the shower, bath or
while travelling. The third aim is to report “what” people believe insights are in their
own words. This aim does not seek to question the current definitions of insight, but
rather to investigate its “meaning” in the general population. The final aim is to
uncover what peoples’ general thoughts are about their insights to investigate these
experiences further.
The current study will seek to answer these questions through an online questionnaire
using open-ended responses. This method, while not as in-depth as traditional qualitative
approaches, has the advantage of covering a wider sample of the population, and there-
fore a wider array of experiences.
MATERIALS AND METHOD
ETHICS STATEMENT
The study was approved by the Charles Sturt University Ethics Committee. After read-
ing the information sheet about the study, respondents indicated consent by clicking on
“Begin study” which forwarded them to the online questionnaire. The respondent was
able to end the study at any time. No information regarding personal identity was taken.
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Journal of Creative Behavior
PARTICIPANTS
The 1,114 Australian respondents were recruited through an online market research
database that represents the Australian population. The sample consisted of 561 females
and 553 males. Ages ranged from 18 to 85 with the modal age category of 3544 years.
Participation was voluntary with a small monetary incentive of two dollars for study
completion.
MATERIALS
The questionnaire contained demographic questions, and open-ended questions
requiring written responses in the respondents’ own words. To ensure that the respon-
dent had a common understanding of insight the questionnaire defined insight as “the
moment in which an idea or a solution arises suddenly and unexpectedly”. It was also
advised that “An insight may occur while working on the problem or when not thinking
about the problem at all (i.e., while attending to something different entirely)”. After
responding to demographic questions, respondents were asked if they had ever had an
insight. If they answered yes, they were then asked, “Do they generally occur at particular
place?” The next question aimed to uncover what their insights mean to them, which
asked, “Do you consider your insights to be more or different to the explanation given
above?” If answering yes, the respondent completed the sentence “I consider my insights
to be...” Finally, respondents were given the chance to make any concluding remarks on
their experiences of insight.
DATA ANALYSIS
The results of the second question (do they [insights] occur at particular place?
[Yes/No]) were entered into a crosstab analysis with demographic information to iden-
tify any trends within the demographic categories. Open-ended responses were com-
piled and coded for time and location of insight. QSR NVivo 10 was used to code the
data for themes. A second researcher then received a coding manual and training in
applying the developed code definitions to the data. The second researcher used this
process to check the coding to maintain quality and consistency among the themes and
to ensure that there was no unnecessary overlap across themes. The second researcher
made the same judgments as the first researcher 95.1% of the time. Any disagreements
in coding were then discussed to reach consensus amongst the two coders across all
coded data.
FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION
The findings and discussion comprise of three sections, and then conclude with
implications of the results and suggestions for future studies; followed by limitations
of the study and conclusion. The first section meets the first aim, which explores the
trends in the proportion of insight experiences within and between demographics
(gender, age, education, and occupation). The second section meets the second and
third aim by reporting the findings on where and when people tend to have their
insights, and what they believe insights are. The third section meets the fourth aim,
which covers the findings on the respondents’ general views about their breakthrough
moments.
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Do People Really Have Insights
OVERVIEW OF FINDINGS
The quantitative results show that not all respondents reported having experienced an
insight. It was found that a greater percentage of those who have insights are, female,
younger, highly educated, and involved in occupations including, management, sciences,
arts, and service professions. The qualitative results uncovered eight major themes, reflect-
ing on the places people have insights. In order of the popularity of location, these were:
At night, work, shower, home, when it is quiet, transport, while exercising, and in nature.
Two major themes emerged from the question on the personal meaning of insight: Some-
thing from the subconscious/unconscious, and a result of (not) thinking. Finally, three major
themes emerged from the last question on any final thoughts they would like to share on
insight: The improvement of insight with age, the importance of analyzing the problem prior
to an incubation period or sleep, and the unexpectedness of the solution.
INSIGHT OCCURRENCE ACCORDING TO DEMOGRAPHICS
It was not assumed, in this study, that everybody experiences insights; indeed, the results
show that some do not. Eighty percent (n=891) of respondents reported “Yes” to the
question “...have you ever had an insight...” which is surprising given that it is taken for
granted in the experimental research that all people have insights, at one time or another.
To explore this further, the responses were tabulated according to demographics to reveal
any significant patterns within and between, gender, age, education, and occupation. The
results are reported in Table 1. Females reported having more insights than males and
more of the younger (1844 year-old) respondents had insights than the older (45 and
over) groups. As the education level increased, so did the percentage of people who have
insights, although this dropped at the doctoral level. Only 11 respondents held a doctoral
degree, making it difficult to generalize this result. Age does not appear to account for this
effect, as the results show that younger people on average have more insights.
A Pearson’s chi-square test of contingencies (with a=.05) was used to statistically
evaluate if the demographic variables (gender, age, and education) are related to
whether or not people experience insights. The chi-square test for gender was statisti-
cally significant, v
2
(1, N=114) =9.54, p=.002, however, the association between
gender and insight was small, /=.09. The chi-square test for age was non-significant,
v
2
(6, N=1112) =6.98, p=.32, /=.08. The chi-square test for education (excluding
those who selected “other” education) was statistically significant, v
2
(4, N=1064) =
20.86, p<.001, with a small effect size, /=.14. In sum, females and level of
education was positively associated with having insight experiences.
A question also remains on whether education plays a role in the quantity of insight
experiences. No research on the connection between education and insightfulness has
been conducted prior to now. A previous study on children shows that intelligence is
related to characteristics thought to enhance insight experiences (see Davidson & Stern-
berg, 1984). The results of this study show education level possibly contributes to more
numbers of people having insight experiences. Since intelligence was not measured in the
current study, a direct comparison with Davidson and Sternberg’s study cannot be made.
However, as education level is related to intelligence (Ceci, 1991), these results do accord
with their findings.
Particular occupational roles will also require the person to solve problems; at
times, this may lead to insightful solutions. For occupation, over 90% of people from
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Journal of Creative Behavior
management, physical and social science, arts and entertainment, and service professions
reported experiencing insights. At the lower end of the insight spectrum were legal
(69%), and production (55%) occupations. Again, small numbers within each of the cat-
egories makes this difficult to generalize, but demonstrates interesting results that could
TABLE 1. Percentage of Respondents within Demographics Who Experience Insights
Gender N
n(%) who
have had
an insight
Occupation N
n(%) who
have had
an insight
Male 553 462 (77) Personal care
and service
16 15 (94)
Female 561 427 (82) Physical and
social sciences
14 13 (93)
Age Arts, design,
entertainment
30 28 (93)
1824 167 137 (82) Management 44 40 (91)
2534 213 177 (83) Healthcare practitioners 37 33 (89)
3544 193 159 (82) Community and
social service
15 13 (87)
4554 175 132 (75) Food preparation
and serving
30 26 (87)
5564 129 100 (78) Farming, fishing,
and forestry
7 6 (86)
6574 124 99 (80) Construction 24 20 (83)
>74 111 83 (75) Sales 66 54 (82)
Computer and
mathematics
37 30 (81)
Education Office and administrative
support
75 61 (81)
High school 357 257 (72) Protective services 5 4 (80)
Certificate/Diploma 334 272 (81) Transport 25 20 (80)
Bachelor’s degree 293 250 (85) Student 46 37 (80)
Master’s degree 69 59 (86) Business and financial 48 38 (79)
Doctoral 11 9 (82) Architecture and
engineering
14 11 (79)
Education, training,
and library
75 58 (77)
Health care support 26 20 (77)
Retired 206 157 (76)
Installation, maintenance
and repair
12 9 (75)
Building/grounds
maintenance
10 7 (70)
Legal 13 9 (69)
Production 11 6 (55)
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Do People Really Have Insights
be investigated further. People who experience the enjoyment of having insights may be
attracted to a particular job role that allows them to problem-solve. Alternatively, partic-
ular job roles may provide a space in which people have insights. This is purely specula-
tivefurther research is needed to uncover a causal link.
Not everybody experiences insights
A surprising and significant finding was the number of respondents who reported not
ever having experienced an insight (20%). As one respondent commented:
[...] I don’t tend to experience insight. I generally analyse a problem and apply my
skills, knowledge and experience to solve it.
(Respondent 650)
This suggests that insight may not be an experience all individuals are capable of hav-
ing or are aware of having. This raises the question of “what” makes a person prone to
insight and why some either do not have insights or are not aware of them. It may also
reflect a difference in the importance people place on their insights. That is, for some,
their insights are deeply significant to their life and for others, insights are another (not-
so-special) way of solving a problem. Further research is required to understand what
makes people more insightful than others. The current study was able to form a founda-
tion for answering this question.
THE IMPORTANCE OF PLACE AND TIME WHEN INSIGHTS OCCUR, AND
WHAT THEY MEAN
The anecdotal literature on breakthrough solutions centers on reports of people having
insights when asleep, in the shower and in other situations when their mind relaxes. In this
study, we were interested in whether the general population tend to have insights in a par-
ticular place (or time of day). Additionally, we sought to investigate what these insights
mean to them, beyond the given definition in the questionnaire. Findings for the questions,
“Do they occur at a particular place?” and, “Do you consider your ‘insights’ to be more or
different to the explanation given above?” are reported in Table 2. Some respondents gave
more than one response, thus the percentages do not add to 100%. To analyze the results
further, a crosstab analysis on the three most popular themes (night-time, at work, and the
shower) with demographic variables was performed (see Table 3). Results for occupation
showed no significant theme pattern, thus it was not included in further analyses.
Places and times insight solutions occur
Sixteen percent (n=141) of those who have had an insight reported that they usually
occur in a particular place or time. Of those who have insights in a particular place or
time, more than three-quarters reported that their insights occurred at night, including
while in bed, during sleep or dreams, and upon wakingwhile waking most often occurs
in the morning, it was still included in the night-time theme due to the carryover effects
of sleep. This theme was by far the most common and is consistent with the experimental
research on sleep influences on breakthrough thinking (see Stickgold & Walker, 2004;
Wagner, Gais, Haider, Verleger, & Born, 2004). The current results also reinforce the idea
that sleep is not about being “offline”, but a time when the brain is active in a particular
wayone that is conducive to problem-solving.
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Journal of Creative Behavior
From a demographic perspective, almost half of the women and a third of the men
experience insight at night or upon waking. The youngest age category (1824 years)
showed the least percentage (25%) of those who have insights at night; however, the
TABLE 2. Places and Times Insight Occur and Their Meaning
Category Thematic category Key terms Characteristic
Level 3 responses
Q1. Place (or time) of insight
P1 At night (79%) Night OR sleep OR bed
OR dreams OR waking
During my sleep
P2 At Work (32%) Work OR desk OR
working on problem
In the workplace
P3 In the shower (30%) Shower In the shower
P4 Home (24%) Home OR cleaning In the kitchen and
at home
P5 Quietness (16%) Quietness OR meditation
OR relaxing
Away from our
children/noise
P6 Transport (13%) Bus OR driving OR train Driving in the car
P7 Exercise (11%) Exercise OR walking Doing exercise
P8 In nature (6%) Nature Camping, in nature,
gardening,
mowing [...]
Q2. I consider insights to be...?
I1 From the
subconscious (59%)
Subconscious/unconscious
OR sudden OR intuition
Result of priming the
subconscious mind
with sufficient
material for it
to cogitate
I2 A result of thinking
or when not
thinking (43%)
Thoughts OR not
thinking OR ideas
The result of my mind
working on the
problem even
though I am not
consciously
thinking about it
I3 Random (16%) Random anywhere
anytime
I4 Knowledge and
experience (14%)
Based on my
knowledge and
experience
I5 Guidance (13%) Divine OR God OR gift Guidance from
the divine (god)
I6 A solution (11%) Solution Possible solutions
to problems
I7 Sleep (10%) From sleeping A result of sleep
Note P=Place; I =Insight is...
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Do People Really Have Insights
older age groups (65 and over) show half or more of these people having insights at
night. For highest education obtained, all doctoral level respondents had insights at night;
half of those with a certificate/Diploma education and approximately one-third of those
with a high school or bachelor degree have insights at night.
The next most popular theme was having insights at work or at their desk. In regards
to this last point, it is difficult to ascertain if people were working on the problem at the
time of the insight or if they were attending to something other than the problem at
hand. Within this category, a couple of respondents indicated they were working on the
problem at the time they had an insight into the solution. If the insight did not occur
while working on the problem, it may have resulted from mind-wandering or off-task
thinking, which is anecdotally known to lead to creative ideas (Poincar
e, 1952). Mind
wandering can either be an awareness of thoughts that are unrelated to the task at hand,
or without awareness (i.e., zoning out; Smallwood, Beach, Schooler, & Handy, 2008).
Off-task thinking often occurs while driving, reading or during any activity where the
person loses focus on the current task at hand (Smallwood & Schooler, 2014). For a
review of the research on mind wandering see, Schooler et al. (2011).
Another possibility is that people have insights through discussing problem-relevant
ideas with others in the workplace. Either way, insights can emerge either at a time when
not thinking about the problem, or during the problem-solving phase. Possibly the best
way to understand these insights contextually, is to have people record them immediately
afterwards, along with information about what activities they were engaged in at
the time. As this was a common theme, further research is warranted. From the
demographics, it shows that males more than females in the 2554 year age category
TABLE 3. Cross-Tabulation for Demographics and Insights Occurring At Night,
Work and in the Shower (N=141)
Night At work Shower
Gender (n)
Male (74) 25 (34%) 16 (22%) 6 (8%)
Female (67) 32 (48%) 7 (10%) 12 (18%)
Age
1824 (24) 6 (25%) 5 (21%) 5 (21%)
2534 (34) 14 (41%) 4 (12%) 4 (12%)
3544 (26) 11 (42%) 6 (23%) 6 (23%)
4554 (16) 6 (38%) 4 (25%)
5564 (13) 5 (38%) 1 (8%)
6574 (14) 8 (57%) 1 (7%) 1 (7%)
74 >(14) 7 (50%) 2 (14%) 2 (14%)
Education
High school (35) 10 (29%) 7 (20%) 2 (6%)
Certificate/Diploma (37) 19 (51%) 5 (14%) 5 (14%)
Bachelor’s degree (51) 18 (35%) 9 (18%) 9 (18%)
Master’s degree (7) 1 (14%) 1 (14%) 1 (14%)
Doctoral (3) 3 (100%) ––
Other (8) 6 (75%) 1 (13%) 1 (13%)
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Journal of Creative Behavior
(i.e., working age group) with a high school or Bachelor degree qualification, have
insights at work.
Having insights in the shower was also a common theme. Like Archimedes sinking into
his bath, these people found the shower was a place to find solutions to problems. Follow-
ing closely behind the shower, many simply stated they had insights at home while relaxing
or cleaning. It is believed that relaxation, resulting from activities such as showering, is cru-
cial to fostering insights (Lehrer, 2008). While relaxedas with sleep, the right hemisphere
becomes more active than the left hemisphere. Numerous studies have reported activity in
areas of the right hemisphere just prior to insight occurrence (e.g., Bowden & Beeman,
2003). It is suggested that the right hemisphere engages in coarse semantic coding (i.e.,
activates a large semantic field) which activates a search for more distant abstract solutions
required to solve more complex problems, like the ones solved via insight (Beeman &
Bowden, 2000). Demographically, females more than males in the 1824 and 3544 year-
old age category with a certificate or Master’s degree have insights in the shower.
Insights while driving, travelling on a bus or train also came out in the responses
(13%). Recall from the introduction that Mullis was driving when he invented the
Polymerase Chain Reaction and J.K. Rowling was on a train when the idea for the Harry
Potter series suddenly came to her. What role travelling has on triggering these flashes of
inspiration is unknown. Mind wandering, which often occurs while travelling, may have
a role to play here. Another possible reason could be auditory in nature. That is, the
humming of the bus or train, or the shower noise, might reduce the number of stimuli
attended to, easing people into a more creative and uninhibited thinking state. How trav-
elling contributes to a mind-state open to new ideas may prove a fruitful avenue for
future empirical studies and could be investigated through experience sampling methods
(ESM; Csikszentmihalyi & Larson, 1987).
Some respondents stated that exercise triggers breakthrough thoughts. No research to
date has made a connection between exercise and eureka moments. The role exercise
plays in triggering insights may also share something with mind-wandering in that peo-
ple (who exercise regularly) allow their mind to engage in other thoughts while the body
automatically employs physical actions. Other possibilities are that exercise leads to stress
reduction (Petruzzello, Landers, Hatfield, Kubitz, & Salazar, 1991). Stress reduction
decreases negative affect and improves positive affect. Both cognitive and neuroscience
studies have shown that positive mood increases insight solutions, but not analytical
solutions (Isen, Daubman, & Nowicki, 1987; Subramaniam et al., 2008). A third possibil-
ity is that exercise may induce a “flow state” which is characterized as “losing oneself” in
the current activity (i.e., complete absorption leads to a loss of self-consciousness; Csik-
szentmihalyi, 1991). Flow states occur in activities that demand a high level of concentra-
tion, but only when personal skill can meet the task challenge (Engeser & Rheinberg,
2008). Hypnotic susceptibility is one trait that has shown to positively correlate with flow
states during exercise (Grove & Lewis, 1996). A hypnotic flow-like state may share simi-
lar features with mind-wandering and deeply relaxing activities which encourage insights.
Future studies on the cognitive processes that people engage in while exercising may shed
light on the connection with breakthrough ideas.
For the remaining 84% who did not indicate whether they had insights at a particular
place, it is difficult to be sure if they do not experience breakthrough thoughts at specific
times or if they could not think of particular times while answering the question. Upon
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Do People Really Have Insights
reflection, we could have asked explicitly which of these was the case for respondents;
future research should consider such an approach.
WHAT DO PEOPLE CONSIDER THEIR INSIGHTS TO BE?
The dictionary definition of insight is, “a moment of sudden and great revelation or
realization” (Oxford Online Dictionary, n.d.). The research definition derives from the
temporal progression of shifting from fixation (of old ideas) to an impasse in which
unconscious restructuring of the problem occurs, and then ends with a sudden and an
often surprising solution (Davidson, 1995). To people in the general population, it may
be an umbrella term that means many things, from a sudden idea or remembering some-
thing, to a life-changing “epiphany”. Teasing apart the nuances in this phenomenon
could bring greater clarity into what meaning individuals give to their insights and how
it differs from other ways of solving problems. For example, a conscious systematic, “for-
mulaic” approach where the solution is expected to arrive in a controlled way differs to
the insight solutions that occur suddenly and unexpectedly and may even be a solution
to a problem, which has not been given much thought.
In reply to the question on whether they consider their insights to be more or differ-
ent to the definition given (“[Insight is] the moment in which an idea or a solution
arises suddenly and unexpectedly”), 15% indicated “Yes”. However, when asked to elabo-
rate on this, 5% replied “same as explanation” reducing the 15% down to 10% of those
who have experienced insights previously (n=125).
The most common theme emerging from the responses was that insights are sudden
or unexpected (same as the definition given in the questionnaire) or came from the
unconscious/subconscious. As two respondents stated:
[Insights are] indicative of the fact that information processing and problem-
solving sometimes go on unconsciously, even while sleeping.
(Respondent 92)
Subconscious thoughts...sometimes they just nag for a solution.
(Respondent 572)
This theme is in accordance with the research on insight which has found that creative
idea generation can occur while not actively seeking a solution (e.g., Snyder, Mitchell,
Ellwood, Yates, & Pallier, 2004). There was also the acknowledgement that relaxation
facilitates the process:
A solution to a problem that I have been having for a while and out of nowhere
the solution just comes. It usually comes to me when I am doing something that
relaxes me.
(Respondent 292)
As another stated, we can have the solution without awareness until the insight shines
a light on it:
Solutions to problems that you have been thinking for some time (even years) and
the answer is sometimes in front of your “nose”.
(Respondent 797)
11
Journal of Creative Behavior
These last two comments reflect the type of insight that has not gained any attention
from research due to the difficulty in measuring theminsights that come after a lengthy
incubation period and occur when attending to another task. Further qualitative research
would help to uncover details on the situation and contexts in which these insights occur.
The second major theme emerging around “thought” were toward insights being con-
tingent on thinking about the problem:
Analyzing the problem from all angles, and trying to obtain help or information to
solve the problem.
(Respondent 825)
On the other end of the spectrum were that insights are contingent on not thinking
about the problem:
They often come to me when I stop actively thinking about the problem.
(Respondent 14)
Others felt that insights were essentially new ideas:
Fresh ideas.
(Respondent 925)
More or less an idea that solves a problem.
(Respondent 176)
Creative ideas [...].
(Respondent 439)
This theme also encompassed a special form of thought:
[...] sometimes a bit of lateral thinking.
(Respondent 614)
More lateral thinking/problem-solving.
(Respondent 824)
Due to thinking outside the square.
(Respondent 45)
Five further themes on what insights are in order of popularity were: Random, from
knowledge and experience, guidance or from God or divine, a solution to a problem, and a
result of sleep. Insights for some respondents appeared to be something “random”. Ran-
domness of insights accord with the research literature, this theme converges on the
unexpectedness of insights (Metcalfe, 1986) and that for some people they do not neces-
sarily appear at a particular place or time. As three respondents stated:
Random, anywhere anytime.
(Respondent 549)
12
Do People Really Have Insights
Random, usually triggered by an event with nothing to do with the question or
problem yet related in some obscure way.
(Respondent 702)
Some respondents felt their insights were something “divine” or a gift from God or
the universe:
Divine guidance offered when trying to look within [...].
(Respondent 22)
Sometimes, a gift from the universal energies.
(Respondent 789)
Others indicated that their insights were just a solution to a problem:
Part of how I solve problems [...].
(Respondent 936)
Occasionally a solution to a problem will come into my mind when I am say,
playing golf.
(Respondent 1023)
Again, relaxation and sleep came through in the responses to what insights are. One
respondent stated that insight is:
Results of my mind being preoccupied with some problem and the solution comes
usually at night either when I’m asleep (It comes in my dream), or I wake up with
the solution.
(Respondent 691)
GENERAL VIEWS ABOUT INSIGHT
One-hundred and fifteen respondent replied to the final question, “Is there anything
else you would like to say about insight...?” Comments included the identification of
factors that led to their insights, in particular a greater occurrence with age, solutions
arising after analysis of the problem followed by an incubation period, during sleep, and
insights occurring unexpectedly.
Age and insight
The quantitative results showed that more of the younger respondents experienced
insights. However, a number of respondents felt their insights improved with age:
I feel my insights improving as I get older and this makes me feel good about ageing.
(Respondent 47)
Insight improves with age.
(Respondent 260)
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Journal of Creative Behavior
For some older individuals, it may be the quality of their insights changing rather than
their frequency, as one respondent stated:
As I age I feel my insight is maturing/changing. I feel I am better able to [put]
issues in perspective and value emotions and people over personal promotion.
(Respondent 488)
The perception that the experience, which comes with age, is what is conducive to
breakthrough ideas was expressed by other respondents:
Age and Experience are major contributing factors.
(Respondent 553)
It is something that age and experience bring aboutbut not (the process)
consciously.
(Respondent 668)
Another respondent noted that age, wisdom and compassion are important:
Age does make us wiser and much more compassionate, I think. This by its very
nature gives us a greater insight to life occurrences.
(Respondent 1003)
Analysis, incubation, and sleep
While insight research currently focuses on incubation effects (Sio & Ormerod, 2009),
others argue that REM sleep is more conducive to insight solutions (Cai, Mednick,
Harrison, Kanady, & Mednick, 2009). In the results of this study, respondents high-
lighted the need for the encoding phase/analysis phase of insight problem-solvingthat
is, understanding the problem. As stated by a number of respondents, Aha!moments
require the details first:
Sometimes I love looking at the details, then stand back, time/sleep or whatever
and say ah ha...need the details first.
(Respondent 21)
As another respondent stated:
Sometimes solutions come when I sleep on them most times when I ponder them
for a while then do something else and come back to them.
(Respondent 93)
In addition, a respondent noted that attempting different solutions to difficult prob-
lems, often lead to an impasse. After which, can be solved when there is a period of time
away from it:
As an engineer my whole life is problem-solving. I find that I often can work at a
project all day and not get an answer, but I can wake up in the night write down a
good idea and fall back to sleep.
(Respondent 540)
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Do People Really Have Insights
This is akin to the research on incubation periods often necessary for bringing break-
through moments to the surface. For a critical review on incubation, see Sio and
Ormerod (2009). Campbell (1960) put forward a blind-variation-selective-retention the-
ory to account for the process between problem awareness and solution in creativity and
discovery (see Perkins, 1998; for a critical discussion; Simonton, 2011, for a more simpli-
fied review and extension to the theory).
Amongst these statements was the emphasis to “sleep on it”:
I am often amassed at how some solutions come to mind. I often solve problems
in my sleep I wake up and the solution is in my mind.
(Respondent 163)
One respondent felt that solutions after sleep differ in quality to insight:
Answers to problems after sleep, diversion etc. are quite different from “insight”
experience which is a sudden total illumination of a concept.
(Respondent 402)
Unexpected solutions
For this question, respondents reinforced the acknowledgment of those insights that
come unexpectedly:
Ideas can come at any time and in any situation and often when I’m not trying.
(Respondent 227)
Experiences of insight come suddenly when I am engaged in another activity, not
even thinking about the situation.
(Respondent 279)
This theme was evident from all three of the open-ended questions put to respondents
in the survey and is consistent with a large research focus on this characteristic of insight
(Davidson, 1995).
STRENGTHS AND LIMITATIONS
A limitation of the study is the restricted time given to respondents to reflect on the
open-ended questions. However, the purpose of the study was to gain a large number
of responses to bring some amount of confidence about how, when and what insights
are to people in the general population. The corollary to this is that unlike in-depth
interviews, we were not able to explore and clarify responses; as a result, much of the
context was lost. For example, people reported having insights while at work or at their
desk, but we were not able to follow-up on what they were doing at the time the
insight occurred. They may have been working on the problem, or discussing something
with colleagues or their mind may have been wandering somewhere else at the time of
the breakthrough moment. Future studies may consider a deeper analysis of insight
experiences, including the context of the situation, the degree to which it impacted on
their life or thoughts about a particular issue, and the accuracy of the solution, to name
a few.
15
Journal of Creative Behavior
The strength of the study includes the characteristics of the sample and the originality
of the findings. Firstly, the sample was large for a qualitative study, which allowed for
broadness and some confidence of the results. Secondly, the sample came from the popu-
lation, not from a university sample, as previous research has relied upon. This possibil-
ity allowed us to obtain responses from people with various educational backgrounds,
occupations and a wider age range. Where insights transpire may be important to our
understanding about what triggers their occurrence, or at least increases the likelihood.
No other research has empirically investigated this, until now.
IMPLICATIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH
The views of the general population are consistent with those of the research community
insight problem-solving is difficult, sometimes comes after an incubation phase and is
sudden. The results also support research on how sleep improves insight solutions. Insights
were implicitly and explicitly described as a special way to solve problems (i.e., different to
other ways of arriving at a solution), something important, surprising, and helpful. The
results also inform a focus for future research. Additional ideas center on the importance of
analysis of the problem (the details), relaxation (expressed by researchers but not empirically
studied) and that insights often arrive spontaneously when attending to task-irrelevant activ-
ities. The findings have implications for experimental work into insight, which presumes that
all respondents have insights. Future research may benefit from screening respondents who
report not having insightsalternatively, researchers may be interested in studying them
specifically. Moreover, experimental work tends to examine insights in contexts that are
incongruent with those that respondents report (i.e., “natural” insights that occur in the
shower etc.). Thus, future research into the development of a self-report scale which can
identify the degree to which people experience insights in their daily life is warranted.
CONCLUSION
The findings from the current study indicate that the subjective experience of insights
for people are varied in meaning. Some respondents indicated that they do not have
insights. Others were very much aware of their insights and readily shared their experiences.
The need for relaxation and quietness came through in all three of the questions. Whether
it is at night, upon rising in the morning, in the shower, at home, or in nature, having quiet
time allows the mind to relax enough for breakthrough moments to occur. The responses
also reveal the suddenness of these experiences and that they often arrive when thinking
about something other than the problem at hand. Many respondents also perceived that
insights originate from the subconscious, or a result of unconscious processing.
A profile of a more “insightful” person was found to be younger, highly educated, and
female. Should further research continue to accord with this profile, employers, and
managers may wish to target these people for the roles and situations where insights are
beneficial. As one of the respondents stated:
I found insightful people are more interesting to be with and work with. They are
more calm, patient, innovative, inspirational, and motivating. They may occasionally
land in trouble because they are risk-takers and have bad audit experiences but in
the long run, they are more successful and achieve leadership peaks.
(Respondent 889)
16
Do People Really Have Insights
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Linda A. Ovington, Anthony J. Saliba, Carmen C. Moran, Jeremy Goldring, Jasmine B. MacDonald, Charles Sturt
University
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Linda Ovington, School of Psychology, Charles
Sturt University, Wagga Wagga, NSW 2678, Australia. E-mail: lovington@csu.edu.au
AUTHOR NOTE
Linda Ovington, Anthony Saliba, Jeremy Goldring, Jasmine MacDonald, School of Psychology, Charles Sturt
University
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
The material is part of a Doctor of Philosophy thesis conducted under an Australian Postgraduate Award. Any
opinions, findings and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors. We
thank the Charles Sturt University Writing Circle for providing insightful comments on the content and expression
of ideas.
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Do People Really Have Insights
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... Aha! moments or insights instantiate fact free learning because they involve the discovery of a solution, idea, or perspective without new information. For example, we might unexpectedly discover a solution while taking a shower or while engaged in another task (Laukkonen and Tangen, 2017;Laukkonen et al., 2021a;Metcalfe and Wiebe, 1987;Ovington et al., 2018). Moreover, experiments show that such insights are usually correct (indicative of refinement, Salvi et al., 2016) and can change subsequent beliefs (Laukkonen et al., 2018(Laukkonen et al., , 2020a(Laukkonen et al., , 2021b. ...
Preprint
Full-text available
How profoundly can humans change their own minds? In this paper we offer a unifying account of decon- structive meditation under the predictive processing view. We start from simple axioms. First, the brain makes predictions based on past experience, both phylogenetic and ontogenetic. Second, deconstructive meditation brings one closer to the here and now by disengaging anticipatory processes. We propose that practicing meditation therefore gradually reduces counterfactual temporally deep cognition, until all conceptual processing falls away, unveiling a state of pure awareness. Our account also places three main styles of meditation (focused attention, open monitoring, and non-dual) on a single continuum, where each technique relinquishes increas- ingly engrained habits of prediction, including the predicted self. This deconstruction can also permit certain insights by making the above processes available to introspection. Our framework is consistent with the state of empirical and (neuro)phenomenological evidence and illuminates the top-down plasticity of the predictive mind. Experimental rigor, neurophenomenology, and no-report paradigms are needed to further understanding of how meditation affects predictive processing and the self.
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... The forgetting fixation theory states that a break in time (e.g., Smith andBlankenship, 1991, 1989) or a change in context (Beda and Smith, 2018;Smith and Beda, 2019) can weaken the retrieval potency of fixating ideas that prevent creative solutions from coming to mind. Thus, our recommended hack is to leave the context associated with your fixation, a recommendation consistent with findings that most people have insights in their everyday lives when they are in places away from the original problem context, such as in the shower, while exercising, driving, or in nature (Ovington et al., 2018). ...
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