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Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Sunday, October 10, 2010

[Wherein our hero explores how best to overcome a creative impasse, and how best to generate insight to a variety of problems]


There are things considered by some (and sometimes many) to be enjoyable which I just do not understand.


  • Doing Burnouts
  • Eating Chocolate
  • Riding Rollercoasters

Then there are somethings which I find enjoyable, which many might walk away from.


  • Fighting
  • Blogging
  • Reading Non-Fiction (almost exclusively)

But there is one thing that I love doing nearly more than anything else. It's one thing that gives me an unparalleled natural high. It's something that I wish more people did, and which they are all capable of.


  • Thinking

Not in that pretentious I'm an intellectual kind of way, but in a practical (and hopefully creative) way.
It's generating an Insight. Busting a problem wide-open with a single flaming idea. Being so engaged with a concept that you forget to eat; something so compelling you need to find a pen and paper right now. Something, once conceived, that literally prevents you from sleeping.

That feeling is right at the top of my list. But sadly one cannot call upon at will. In fact, it often feels like we are the whim of it. I guess that thing I feel is what might have once been described as a muse.

I don't know. I lack the poetry. But I do, however, have the science.

There are two ways insight and problem solving strike me. The first is apparently spontaneous - perhaps some idea or problem has been gnawing away at the back of my mind for sometime, then leaps out from the darkness with blinding obviousness. The second manner is forcible - I sit down with a task at hand and work out some solutions (often with a bottle of wine). There is a third, and it's a combination of the two - what one might more readily call 'incubation'. All have their own flavour, yet each is particularly enjoyable.

By far the most common (in my own opinion) is insight of the incubation variety.

A meta-review by Sio & Ormerod (2009) really dig into this 'incubation effect' and have come up with some interesting findings. There's three general theories regarding incubation. The first suggests that ideas diffuse to relevant but non-conscious memories, creating new connections, and thus, new insight. The second suggests that we forget that which is creating the impasse - the paradigm or a framework which colours the way we view a problem is degraded and a new perspective is achieved. The third is a kind of restructuring process, whereby the problem is shaped into something that is most capable of capitalizing on various forms of stimuli (e.g. memory, current environment, etc). I choose to make no report or comment on these theories, but offer them as, well, food for thought.


  • However, in terms of the science, here's what I can offer:
  • Longer periods of preparation beget longer periods of incubation;
  • When solving linguistic problems (making sense of a given set of information) engaging in tasks with a low cognitive demand is most effective in generating insight during incubation;
    High congitive demand tasks during incubation are not facilitative;
  • When solving creative problems, it seems engaging in a wide information search (during incubation) is most effective; and
  • When a problem has a limited set of solutions, information search may not be facilitative; Incubation most benefits 'divergent thinking'*, followed by linguistic tasks, followed by visual tasks (like mental rotations)

In a seperate papar, Chrysikou (2006), looked at how best to train insight. It seems (from my understanding of the paper) that some simple mental-flexibility excercises significantly improve your ability to solve 'goal-directed' tasks.

A classic example is the candle problem.

The candle problem:

Task: One must fix a candle to a wall (or corkboard) in such a way that, when alight, the candle does not drip wax onto the floor.

Materials: One candle. A box of matches. A handful of Tacks. One wall (which cannot be moved or otherwise manipulated)

Try it right now. Give yourself two minutes.

Now try it again, but do the following tasks first:

Describe half a dozen different uses for a shoe, that differ from it's use as footwear; Describe half a dozen uses for a fork, that differ from its standard use; Describe half a dozen uses for a keyboard, that differ from it's standard use.

Chrysikou (2006) found that after engaging in tasks (similiar to those described above) one is more capable and more efficient at generating insight regarding goal-directed tasks.

But let's say you're try to get through your Thesis, or you've a screen-play (that no-one knows about) saved in some obscure folder, and you've reached an impasse. You sit down and you write, but nothing comes. Is it worth taking a break (do you even deserve one?); or maybe the phone rings, and interrupts your flow. Are the two things equal? In both instances you're not doing your work. Maybe you should just power through, is that better still?

Beefink, van Earde & Rutte (2008) gave this problem some thought... and after experimentation made one obvious finding, and one quite suprisingly and highly interesting finding. Self-initiated breaks lead to more insight and fewer impasses. No duh. But more interestingly, interruptions (compared to continuous work) led to fewer impasses (but not to more insight). Now I don't know if you can attribute this to perception (I wasn't stuck, the phone rang!) or if it genuinely seems to choke a potential impasse away before it becomes a problem. I don't know. It might be worth considering (next time you're interrupted) that they are doing you a favour, and not destroying your mojo.

There's some interesting thoughts out there about insight and problem solving. I'm led to believe, however, that this body of literature is different still from that of creativity. Maybe there's material there for discussion another day. But it seems to me that insight and problem solving is a genuine skill which can be honed and practised (and indeed primed) to greatest effect. I know I have some of my own personal strategies which I find highly effective, which have solved various creative and practical problems for me in the past.

But as for that screen-play hidden on your USB, I don't have any science. All I can offer (from personal experience) is the name of a passable Australian Red which should set the creative cogs spinning.

* for example, what would be the result if everyone ceased in their ability to read and write; there is no right or wrong answer. Degree of 'divergence' is measured by the number of possible solutions or scenarios generated.


Beeftink, F., van Eerde, W., & Rutte, C. (2008). The Effect of Interruptions and Breaks on Insight and Impasses: Do You Need a Break Right Now? Creativity Research Journal, 20 (4), 358-364 DOI: 10.1080/10400410802391314

Sio UN, & Ormerod TC (2009). Does incubation enhance problem solving? A meta-analytic review. Psychological bulletin, 135 (1), 94-120 PMID: 19210055

Chrysikou, E. (2006). When Shoes Become Hammers: Goal-Derived Categorization Training Enhances Problem-Solving Performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 32 (4), 935-942 DOI: 10.1037/0278-7393.32.4.935


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Jason Goldman
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Self-initiated breaks lead to more insight and fewer impasses. No duh.

Why does this seem obvious? It doesn't to me.

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Perhaps I just rationalize my procrastination better than you ;)

On a more serious note, really? I guess I just made a big assumption, one of those times when you just assume everyone does as you do, but you've never bothered to confirm. In that case, I hope this post helps you in the future.

Jason Goldman
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Oh, its not that I don't buy the conclusions. And, for the record, I really like the idea of incubation - though I often refer to it as "chewing" on a problem.

Reading again, I see that the comparison is self-initiated breaks and non-self-initiated breaks. So yes, I suppose it's obvious in that case. But self-initiated breaks versus no intuitively makes sense, but it isn't clear to me why. I fail to see the mechanism.

Jason Goldman
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(not sure why the word "see" in the last sentence is randomly italicized)

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Yeah, it's an interesting question. Wouldn't it be nice to get some insight problem solving happening inside a fMRI... perhaps one could track the incubation activity.

Personally, I like the diffusing theory. But even that doesn't explain the mechanism, but only proposes a what might happen, not how...

Jason Goldman
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I never thought I'd be the guy complaining about descriptive research and demanding a mechanism. I guess it happens even to the best of us.

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