Research Article: Neural Activity When People Solve Verbal Problems with Insight

Date Published: April 13, 2004

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Mark Jung-Beeman, Edward M Bowden, Jason Haberman, Jennifer L Frymiare, Stella Arambel-Liu, Richard Greenblatt, Paul J Reber, John Kounios

Abstract: People sometimes solve problems with a unique process called insight, accompanied by an “Aha!” experience. It has long been unclear whether different cognitive and neural processes lead to insight versus noninsight solutions, or if solutions differ only in subsequent subjective feeling. Recent behavioral studies indicate distinct patterns of performance and suggest differential hemispheric involvement for insight and noninsight solutions. Subjects solved verbal problems, and after each correct solution indicated whether they solved with or without insight. We observed two objective neural correlates of insight. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (Experiment 1) revealed increased activity in the right hemisphere anterior superior temporal gyrus for insight relative to noninsight solutions. The same region was active during initial solving efforts. Scalp electroencephalogram recordings (Experiment 2) revealed a sudden burst of high-frequency (gamma-band) neural activity in the same area beginning 0.3 s prior to insight solutions. This right anterior temporal area is associated with making connections across distantly related information during comprehension. Although all problem solving relies on a largely shared cortical network, the sudden flash of insight occurs when solvers engage distinct neural and cognitive processes that allow them to see connections that previously eluded them.

Partial Text: According to legend, Archimedes shouted “Eureka!” (“I have found it!”) when he suddenly discovered that water displacement could be used to calculate density. Since then, “Eureka!,” or “Aha!,” has often been used to express the feeling one gets when solving a problem with insight. Insight is pervasive in human (and possibly animal [Epstein et al. 1984]) cognition, occurring in perception, memory retrieval, language comprehension, problem solving, and various forms of practical, artistic, and scientific creativity (Sternberg and Davidson 1995). The Archimedes legend has persisted over two millennia in part because it illustrates some of the key ways in which insight solutions differ from solutions achieved through more straightforward problem solving. We examine the neural bases of these different problem-solving methods.

Complex problem solving requires a complex cortical network to encode the problem information, search memory for relevant information, evaluate this information, apply operators, and so forth. The FMRI and EEG results reported here conclusively demonstrate that solving verbal problems with insight requires at least one additional component to this cortical network, involving RH aSTG, that is less important to solving without insight. The insight effect in RH aSTG accords with the literature on integrating distant or novel semantic relations during language comprehension. When people comprehend (read or listen to) sentences or stories, neural activity increases in aSTG or temporal pole bilaterally more than when comprehending single words (Mazoyer et al. 1993; Bottini et al. 1994; Stowe et al. 1999; Humphries et al. 2001; Meyer et al. 2000). Neural activity increases in predominantly RH aSTG during tasks that emphasize integration across sentences to extract themes (St. George et al. 1999) or to form more coherent memories for stories (Mason and Just 2004). RH aSTG is also selectively active when subjects must generate the best ending to a sentence (Kircher et al. 2001) or mentally repair grammatically incorrect sentences (Meyer et al. 2000), both of which likely require intense semantic integration.



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