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Is my Aha! bigger than yours? Investigating individual differences in the experience of insight

Pepping, Natalie M (2019) Is my Aha! bigger than yours? Investigating individual differences in the experience of insight. Honours thesis, Murdoch University.

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A Neural Network Theory (NNT) account of insight processes and individual differences in cognitive ability predicts that, compared to routine problem solving, insight experiences will be associated with less involvement of control functions and will occur less frequently among people with greater fluid ability. The present study investigated the role of fluid intelligence and metacognitive control in the elicitation of Aha experiences. Seventy-six participants, predominantly university students (84% female), attempted a set of problems, including classic insight, non-insight and riddles. Subjective experiences of insight, certainty and suddenness of the solution process were measured, using a purpose-built concurrent rating apparatus and retrospective report. Participants completed Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices (fluid intelligence) and an attention-switching task (metacognitive control). Hierarchical Generalised Linear Modelling was used to model Aha experiences as a function of item-level predictors (Level 1) and person-characteristics (Level 2). The overall odds of reporting an Aha experience were 0.42. Higher fluid intelligence, but not metacognitive control, was associated with reduced odds of reporting Aha on a problem (OR=0.88, 95% CI: 0.82,0.95), controlling for accuracy, solution suddenness, and verbal skills. Aha experiences were significantly associated with multiple theoretically meaningful retrospective and concurrent problem-solving experience ratings, with fluid intelligence moderating some associations. These findings support the NNT account of insight as a special process and fluid intelligence as a factor limiting the complexity, and accessible solution states from the initial problem representation, leading to the requirement for an alternative representation. The study demonstrates some methodological solutions to difficulties inherent in measuring insight.

A chimpanzee named Sultan, two sticks, and a hard-to-reach banana; this is the scenario from which almost a century of research investigating “Aha!” experiences emerged (Ohlsson, 1992). Early Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Kohler observed that after repeated attempts to reach the banana, Sultan entered a failure-induced sulk. However, he became suddenly re-energised, and purposefully joined two sticks together to retrieve the banana (Kohler, 1921 cited in Ohlsson 1992). How, after numerous attempts and apparent acceptance of failure, did the solution to this intractable problem suddenly appear in Sultan's consciousness? What processes simmering beyond conscious awareness conjured a fully formed solution and planted it so abruptly into Sultan's dormant and tortured mind? "Aha!"

Aha experiences are thought to be indicative of a moment of insight and have historically been associated with exceptional creativity, scientific discovery and genius (Hill & Kemp, 2018; Metcalfe & Wiebe, 1987; Shen et al., 2016; Sternberg & Davidson, 1995). These experiences have been shown to be distinct neurophysiological phenomena (Bowden & Jung-Beeman, 2003; Kounios et al., 2006; Sandkühler & Bhattacharya, 2008; Tik et al., 2018) that facilitate memory (Danek et al., 2013), improve learning (Dominowski & Buyer, 2000), and provide motivation during difficult learning (Liljedahl, 2005).

Current definitions of insight moments describe them as the occurrence of a solution or path to a solution suddenly and unexpectedly coming to mind following a pause in active thinking when a problem-solver feels unable to make further progress (Bowden et al., 2005; Sternberg & Davidson, 1995). Insight is asserted to be a special process that is distinct from analytical problem-solving (Knoblich et al., 1999; Ohlsson, 1992; Sternberg & Davidson, 1995). Analytical problem-solving is continuous and incremental and does not engender a salient Aha experience (Schooler et al., 1993). Despite a substantial body of research seeking to demystify these processes, the specialness of insight is still the subject of much debate.

Recent research suggests that the lack of clarity is a result of the way insight is operationalised in many studies as “solving an insight problem” (Danek et al., 2016; Webb et al., 2016) without verifying that the problem-solver has experienced an Aha moment. These studies indicate that insight is not reliably evoked by these problems, suggesting the processes engaged in solving insight problems may be idiosyncratic (Danek et al., 2016; Webb et al., 2016). That is, it is possible that rather than task requirements, individual differences of the problem-solver influence whether or not insight processes are used to solve a problem and the subsequent occurence of an Aha experience.

Two individual characteristics that may be relevant to the Aha experience are fluid intelligence and metacognitive control. Fluid intelligence is defined as the ability to use controlled and deliberate mental operations to solve problems, deduce patterns, identify relations and draw inferences (McGrew, 2009). Metacognitive control is a facet of metacognition that refers explicitly to the control processes involved in regulating and directing information processing resources (Nelson & Narens, 1990). Differing levels of these abilities may influence the cognitive processes engaged during problem-solving (Dix et al., 2016). Thus, the central aim of this study is to investigate whether individual differences in fluid intelligence or metacognitive control influence whether an Aha experience occurs upon problem-solving.

The present study agrees with several others that an Aha reported by the problem-solver is verification that insight has occurred (Bowden et al., 2005; Danek et al., 2016; Webb et al., 2016). However, some researchers argue that Aha experiences occur randomly (Chuderski, 2014) or are related to post-solution affect of evaluations of the solution (Topolinski & Reber, 2010). The second aim of the present study is to determine if Aha moments are associated with problem-solving experiences that are indicative of a special process. Due to current limitations in methodology, a new device was developed to accomplish this aim. This is described in section 2.5.

Item Type: Thesis (Honours)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Psychology, Counselling, Exercise Science and Chiropractic
Supervisor(s): Davis, Helen
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