An idea you got out of thin air may be more than just a random one, according to researchers. Using a series of experiments, they found that sudden insights often offer accurate solutions to problem compared to analytically thinking things through.

For a study published in the journal Thinking & Reasoning, Carola Salvi, Ph.D. and colleagues carried out four different types of timed puzzles to compare answers derived from sudden insight and analytic thought.

"Conscious, analytic thinking can sometimes be rushed or sloppy, leading to mistakes while solving a problem," said John Kounios, Ph.D., one of the study's authors.

On the other hand, insight is automatic and unconscious, he further explained. This means the process can't be rushed but once allowed to run its course, it offers a solution that pops into awareness as an "Aha!" moment.

Sudden insight has been well documented in history to have resulted in the correct solution but this likelihood for correctness has never been actually tested until now. According to Salvi, their study was designed to determine if there is justification for the confidence people have regarding their "Aha!" moments.

To test this, the researchers used four experiments, each using distinct puzzles: one involving only linguistic items, another focused on visual elements and two incorporating both linguistic and visual aspects. All the experiments had 50 to 180 puzzles, each timed to give participants between 15 and 16 seconds to answer.

When a participant was ready to answer, a button was pressed. After giving their answer, they were then asked if their response was derived from sudden insight or analytical thinking.

An overwhelming number of responses that turned out correct were arrived at through insight. In the linguistic puzzles, for instance, 94 percent of answers derived from insight were correct.

But just because sudden insights have the tendency to be correct does not mean that analytical thinking should be pushed aside. Rather, it is best applied when dealing with problems with solutions with known strategies, like arithmetic.

By making sudden insight appear more valid, the researchers are encouraging people to take "Aha!" moments seriously.

"It may not always be correct, but it can have a higher probability of being right than an idea that is methodically worked out," said Kounios.

Photo: Yudis Asnar | Flickr

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