Why Science Says You Should Trust Those Aha! Answers
"People tend to feel very certain that their insights are correct, but nobody had ever tested how often that’s true," says Carola Salvi, PhD, lead author of the study and postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University's Creative Brain Lab and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. "I was starting to wonder if it might be a fallacy that we all believe because we only report our insights when they’re right. Nobody talks about the ones that didn’t work."
In a series of experiments, Salvi and her colleagues had undergrads in the US and Italy (a total of 226 among the various tests) solve timed visual or linguistic problems, or a combination of the two. An example: You’re given the words "crab," "pine," and "sauce" and asked to come up with the word that connects them all (it’s “apple”). The subjects were told how to tell the difference between an insight answer and an analytic one beforehand. During the experiments, they’d solve a problem, report whether they got their solution via insight or analysis, then move on to the next question.
Ninety-four percent of answers that were arrived at through insight were correct in the linguistic puzzles compared to 78 percent of analytic answers. In the visual puzzles, 78 percent of insight answers were correct compared to 42 percent of analytic ones. Insight was still the winner even after the researchers eliminated answers given instantly or right before time ran out, which were most likely guesses.
It’s not that we're all just bad at thinking through problems—sudden solutions are more likely to be right because of how our brains reach them. "Insight is happening below the level of consciousness," she says. "Your brain is working on the solution without you being aware of it, using the information you have to find the answer, and it'll only put that answer forward if it makes sense." It's like your brain is working on a puzzle—it'll only say "Done!" when all of the pieces fit together correctly. If they don't fit, you probably won’t get that aha answer.
There are a couple of exceptions though. Things like math problems (where there's a well-defined strategy to reach the right answer) are better approached with analytical thinking. And we don't know how insight compares to thought-out solutions when it comes to more open-ended questions—what should I do with my tax refund this year?—because there's no good way to judge a "correct" answer in that case.
When there's a question with a definite answer though—like looking at what you've got in your cabinets and wondering what you could whip up for dinner or running into someone you know you've met before but their name just isn’t coming to you—and more than one way to solve it, you should pay attention to the answer that seems to appear out of thin air, something Salvi says she does herself.