The monk sat meditating. Alone atop a sparsely vegetated outcrop, all external stimulus infusing psychic energy within his calm, receptive mind. Distractions merely added to his trance, assisting the meditative state to deepen and intensify. Without warning, the experience culminated unexpectedly with a fluttering of eyelids. The monk stood, content and empowered with newfound knowledge. He has achieved pure insight…

The term ‘insight’ is often attributed to such vivid descriptions of meditation and religious devotion. More specifically, religions such as Buddhism promote the concept of insight (vipassana) as a vital prerequisite for spiritual nirvana, or transcendence of the mind to a higher plane of existence. But does insight exist for the everyday folk of the world? Are the momentary flashes of inspiration and creativity part and parcel of the same phenomenon or are we missing out on something much more worthwhile? What neurological basis does this mental state have and how can its materialisation be ensured? These are the questions I would like to explore in this article.

Insight can be defined as the mental state whereby confusion and uncertainty are replaced with certainty, direction and confidence.  It has many alternative meanings and contexts regarding its use, ranging from a piece of obtained information to the psychological capacity to introspect objectively (as according to some external judge – introspection is by its very name subjective in nature). Perhaps the most fascinating and generally applicable context is one which can be described as ‘an instantaneous flash of brilliance’ or ‘a sudden clearing of murky intellect and intense feelings of accomplishment’. In short, insight (in the context which I am interested) is one which can be attributed to the genius’ of society, those that seemingly bring together tiny shreds of information and piece them together to solve a particularly challenging problem.

Archimedes is perhaps the most widely cited example of human insight. As the story goes, Archimedes was inspired by the displacement of water in his bathtub to formulate a theory of calculating the volume of an irregular object. This technique was of great empirical importance as it allowed a reliable measure of density (referred to as ‘purity’ in those ancient times, and arising from a more fiscal motivation such as gold purity). The climax of the story describes a naked Archimedes running wildly through the streets unable to control his excitement at this ‘Eureka’ moment. Whether the story is actually true or not has little bearing on the force of the argument presented; all of us have most likely experienced this moment at one point in our lives, and is best summarised by the overcoming of seemingly insurmountable odds to conquer a difficult obstacle or problem.

But where does this inspiration come from? It almost seems as though the ‘insightee’ is unaware of the mental efforts to arrive at a solution, perhaps feeling a little defeated after a day spent in vain. Insight then appears at an unexpected moment, almost as though the mind is working unconsciously and without direction, and offers a brilliant method for victory. The mind must have some unconscious ability to process and connect information regardless of our directed attention to achieve moments such as this. Seemingly unconnected pieces of information are re-routed and brought to our attention in the context of the previous problem. Thus could there be a neurobiological basis for insight? One that is able to facilitate a behind-the-scenes process?

Perhaps insight is encouraged by the physical storage and structure of neural networks. In the case of Archimedes, the solution was prompted by the mundane task of taking a bath; superficially unrelated to the problem, however the value of its properties inflated by a common neural pathway (low bathwater – insert leg – raised bathwater similar to volumes and matter in general). That is, the neural pathways activated by taking a bath are somehow similar to those activated by the rumination of the problem at hand. Alternatively, the unconscious mind may be able to draw basic cause and effect conclusions which are then boosted to the forefront of our minds if they are deemed to be useful (ie: are they immediately relevant to the task being performed). Whatever the case may be, it seems that at times, our unconscious minds are smarter than our conscious attention.

The real question is whether insight is an intangible state of mind (ala ‘getting into the zone’) that can be turned on and off (thus making it useful for extending humanity’s mental capabilities), or whether it is just a mental byproduct from overcoming a challenge (hormonal response designed to encourage such thinking in the future). Can the psychological concept of insight be applied via a manipulation of the subject’s composition (neuronally)  and environmental characteristics (conductive to achieving insight), or is it merely an evolved response that serves a (behaviourally) reinforcing purpose?

Undoutedly the agent’s environment plays a part in determining the likelihood of insight occurring. Taking into account personal preferences (does the person prefer quite spaces for thinking?) the characteristics of the environment could serve to hamper the induction of such a mental state if it is sufficiently irritating to the individual. Insight may also be closely linked with intelligence, and depending on your personal conception of this, neurological structure (if one purports a strictly biological basis of intelligence). If this postulate is taken at face value, we have the conclusion that the degree of intelligence is directly related to the likelihood of insight, and perhaps also to the ‘quality’ of the insightful event (ie: a measure of its brilliance in comparison to inputs such as the level of available information and difficulty of the problem).

But what of day to day insight, it seems to crop up in all sorts of situations. In this context, insight might require a grading scale as to its level of brilliance if its use is to be justified in more menial situations and circumstances. Think of that moment when you forget a particular word, and try as you might, cannot remember it for the life of you. Recall also that flash of insight where the answer is simply handed to you on a platter without any conscious need to retrieve it. Paradoxically, it seems that the harder we try to solve the problem, the more difficult it becomes. However, is this due to efficiency problems such as ‘bottlenecking’ of information transfer, personality traits such as performance anxiety/frustration or some underlying and unconscious process that is able to retrieve information without conscious direction?

Whatever the case may be, our scientific knowledge on the subject is distinctly lacking, therefore an empirical inquiry into the matter is more than warranted (if it hasn’t already been commissioned). Psychologically, the concept of insight could be tested experimentally by providing subjects with a problem to solve and manipulating  the level of information (eg ‘clues’) and its relatedness to the problem (with consideration taken to intelligence, perhaps two groups, high and low intelligence). This may help to uncover whether insight is a factor to do with information processing or something deeper. If science can learn how to artificially induce a mental state akin to insight, the benefits for a positive-futurist society would be grand indeed.

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