The Science behind Insight and why it matters

You can have more and better insights

Many remain confused about what an insight is, and what the consumer insights definition of insight is. Insight is “the power or act of seeing into a situation. The act or result of apprehending the inner nature of things or of seeing intuitively.” But the science behind insight shows it is a cognitive act.

Insight is “not memory, but the supervening act of understanding. – Bernard Lonergan, Jesuit priest, theologian, and philosopher.

Today, brain scientists can see insight happen in the brain – they have mapped the “aha!” moment. The phenomena of insight is a unique brain activity. Using EEG and fMRI scans, John Kounios of Drexel University and Mark Beeman of Northwestern concluded that insight is the culmination of a series of brain states and processes that show up as a consistent pattern of activity.

The researchers frame insight as: An important cognitive function that occurs in a number of domains such as finding solutions to problems, understanding jokes and metaphors, identifying an object in blurry picture or having a self-realization.

Brain patterns for insight thinking are distinctly different from those for analytical thinking. The fMRI imaging from their study showed that while the same cerebral region was active during initial problem-solving efforts, the EEG revealed a sudden burst of high-frequency (gamma-band) neural activity in the same area beginning about a third of a second prior to the time the subject indicated an insight solution. This varied from the pattern seen solving a problem in analytical fashion. The flash of insight – the Aha! moment – involves the amygdala; our center of emotion, emotional behavior, and motivation in the limbic brain.

In marketing research we gather observations from many sources over many different platforms. Quant or qual, it’s all just data until we codify it into information, and analyze it to form knowledge. Most marketing research ends there, mostly because most marketing research studies are designed to be explanatory or descriptive.


But you will notice in the chart above that knowledge is also the culmination of analytical thinking. To get to insight, one needs to shift from analytical thinking into insight thinking.

Back to the brain science: “Although all problem solving relies on a largely shared cortical network, the sudden flash of insight occurs when problem solvers engage distinct neural and cognitive processes that allow them to see connections that previously eluded them.” Beeman and Kounios conclude that brain activity for insight differs from deliberate, conscious problem-solving strategies.

Insight requires a reorganization of data that results in a novel, non-obvious interpretation that can spark innovation (sometimes, the insight is the innovation).

In my professional experience, the best consumer insights I have seen developed in my InsightsLab® workshops have occurred when teams have made combinations of seemingly unconnected observations – often initially bizarre looking, or strange sounding combinations. But these combinations of knowledge sparked moments of pure clarity for the insights team. When a great insight is created, suddenly everyone in the room sees the opportunity – great insights unlock opportunities and align teams.

It is clear that insight is indeed, a form of creativity.

Fortunately, insight is not a fixed ability; with practice anyone can get better at it, much like meditation, or deliberate creativity.

You can improve your ability to have more and better insights by working on your ability to be more perceptive, more reflective, more empathetic. You can learn to become an empathetic listener. Attitudinally, you can help yourself get into insightful thinking by being more open, curious, unafraid, playful and appreciative. Having an open and flexible mind is critical to developing insights. You can help create a culture of insight in your organization by practicing these abilities and attitudes.

And don’t forget to incubate. Our culture tends to value “busy-ness” and we forget to slow down and incubate; let our ideas marinate. The best insights often occur when we are not thinking about them. Remember that the flash of insight – the Aha! moment – involves the amygdala; our center of emotion, emotional behavior, and motivation in the limbic brain. Emotion and motivation are key.

Gerald Zaltman once told me that between fact and insight lies our imagination.

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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