The Science behind Insight. Part 2, Insight Thinking.

Preparing your mind for better insights

Genius doesn’t work on an assembly line basis. You can’t simply say, ‘Today I will be brilliant.’ James T. Kirk

In my last post “The Science behind Insight. And why it matters” I talked about the neuroscience behind insight, the definition of consumer insight, and the need to shift from analytical thinking to insight thinking in order to have more and better insights.

When facilitating consumer insight teams in an InsightsLab® workshop, it usually takes the entire first morning to get the team into a “insight state of mind.”  They are anxious about what they are missing at the office, disconnected from their devices and putting a lot of pressure on themselves to come up with something new. They have committed to two days of off-site workshop (a very big deal) and yet are not open to new lines of thinking – after all, they know their consumer inside and out, right? No one wants to look foolish, or say something silly.

They often get into a mode of rigid analytical thinking, like Dr. Spock (“I have not enjoyed serving with humans. I find their illogical and foolish emotions a constant irritant.”) Analytical thinking is a convergent form of thinking that involves a methodical, step-by-step approach to solving problems to break down complex problems into single and manageable components. You gather relevant information, identify key issues, compare sets of data, identify possible cause and effect patterns, and draw appropriate conclusions and arrive at appropriate solutions.

Or they stay in the critical thinking mode the humanist Dr. “Bones” McCoy is known for (“I’m a doctor, not a ______ !!”). Critical thinking, while not necessarily negative, is convergent thinking. “Reasonably and reflectively deciding what to believe or do; making reasoned judgments. In essence, critical thinking is a disciplined manner of thought that a person uses to assess the validity of something: a statement, news story, argument, research, etc.”

In Graham Wallas’ 1926 masterpiece “The Art of Thought,” he proposes an elegant four-step process of insight – Preparation, Incubation, Illumination, Evaluation. In this model, Spock is more about preparation and incubation, and Bones is about evaluation.

So how do we get to Illumination? How do we shift from analytical or critical thinking to the divergence of insight thinking?

Captain James T. Kirk is all about the art of the possible. He relied upon his past preparation and constant learning, his acumen and experience, the advice of others (from radically different worldviews) and would allow his feelings and intuition to inform his thinking – he was often a little reckless, and willing to fail (or even destroy his own ship if it meant a better outcome). Importantly, Kirk was always part of the “away team” (he was close to the customers) so he had on-the-ground knowledge. When Kirk reached the stage of illumination, when he found an insight solution to the problem, it was always dramatic. We know from the neuroscience that insight involves the amygdala – our center of emotion in the brain.

Why is it that insight sometimes comes easily and sometimes not at all? It turns out that there is a science behind Pasteur’s famous quote “chance favors the prepared mind.” Studies show “that patterns of brain activity before people even see a problem predict whether they will solve it with or without an insight, and these brain activity patterns are linked to distinct types of mental preparation.”

Specifically, you can prepare your mind for more and better insights by:

  • Shifting your focus of attention inward. Find a comfortable pace for your thinking – some people think very fast and others like to really slow it down. Fast or slow, remember not to rush or put pressure on yourself. This is not a race!
  • Periods of Incubation are critical to insight. Detaching yourself from the problem after an intense period of study often sparks an insight.
  • Periods of “intentional play” are often helpful. The positive state of mind and sense of well being that follows a period of play will help spark insight.
  • Opening your mind to new lines of thinking. Being present and open is difficult because we spend a lot of our time squashing anxiety and avoiding discomfort. But insights are often found in discomfort, connecting the seemingly unconnected. Allow your imagination to run free.
  • Studies show that people who practice flexible thinking are better at solving insight puzzles. We often work in silos and adhere to a rather rigid culture, belief and value system espoused by the organization. This is proven insight killer. There’s a good example of flexible thinking skills here.
  • Practice being curious, courageous and dogged. Other attitudes that help (which you may have surmised from the above) include being open, playful, and appreciative.
  • Actively ignoring/silencing irrelevant thoughts. We tend to fill holes or gaps with past memories, personal beliefs/assumptions or known data to avoid discomfort. Often it does not bear on the problem we are trying to solve. Being aware of this allows us to minimize it so that it will not interfere with the insight thinking process.
  • Listening empathetically. In order to truly listen, we must set aside sufficient time to do so. Perhaps here is the real challenge; we have little patience when listening to another’s problem or idea or need. Yet empathic listening is incompatible with being in a hurry; it demands that one, at least for a moment, place time on hold and defer or delay our own thoughts and needs. Truly listening empathetically, as Carl Rogers said, is one of the most potent forces for change.

Insight thinking, like sport, requires you to warm up. Practice a little. By slowing down and focusing, opening yourself up to new lines of thinking, not censoring your imagination, and being aware of irrelevant ideas or data points, you can better attain an insight state of mind.

About the Author

John Holcombe

John is currently the Founder of Wellspring Insights & Innovation and a member of the Board of Directors for the Miami Innovation Fund. John helps many iconic brands and organizations fill up their innovation pipeline with insights, ideas and new concepts. He also offers workshops and training on how individuals and organizations can have more and better insights by developing a culture of insight.

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