insight

New insight into insight, and the role of the amygdala in memory

April, 2011

A new study suggests that one-off learning (that needs no repetition) occurs because the amygdala, center of emotion in the brain, judges the information valuable.

Most memory research has concerned itself with learning over time, but many memories, of course, become fixed in our mind after only one experience. The mechanism by which we acquire knowledge from single events is not well understood, but a new study sheds some light on it.

The study involved participants being presented with images degraded almost beyond recognition. After a few moments, the original image was revealed, generating an “aha!” type moment. Insight is an experience that is frequently remembered well after a single occurrence. Participants repeated the exercise with dozens of different images.

Memory for these images was tested a week later, when participants were again shown the degraded images, and asked to recall details of the actual image.

Around half the images were remembered. But what’s intriguing is that the initial learning experience took place in a brain scanner, and to the researchers’ surprise, one of the highly active areas during the moment of insight was the amygdala. Moreover, high activity in the amygdala predicted that those images would be remembered a week later.

It seems the more we learn about the amygdala, the further its involvement extends. In this case, it’s suggested that the amygdala signals to other parts of the brain that an event is significant. In other words, it gives a value judgment, decreeing whether an event is worthy of being remembered. Presumably the greater the value, the more effort the brain puts into consolidating the information.

It is not thought, from the images used, that those associated with high activity in the amygdala were more ‘emotional’ than the other images.

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Neural evidence for sudden insight

July, 2010

A rat study supports the idea that rule learning occurs in sudden switches in the activity pattern of neurons, that may be experienced as moments of sudden insight.

A rat study has revealed that as the rats slowly learned a new rule, groups of neurons in the medial frontal cortex switched quite abruptly to a new pattern corresponding directly to the shift in behavior, rather than showing signs of gradual transition. Such sudden neural and behavioral transitions may correspond to so- called "a-ha" moments, and support the idea that rule learning is an evidence-based decision process, perhaps accompanied by moments of sudden insight.

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A bare light bulb stimulates insight

March, 2010

Love this one! A series of experiments with college students has revealed that a glowing, bare light bulb can improve your changes of solving an insight problem.

Love this one! A series of experiments with college students has revealed that a glowing, bare light bulb can improve your changes of solving an insight problem. In one experiment, 79 students were given a spatial problem to solve. Before they started, the experimenter, remarking “It’s a little dark in here”, either turned on a lamp with an unshaded 25-watt bulb or an overhead fluorescent light. Twice as many of those exposed to the bare bulb solved the problem in the allotted three minutes (44% vs 22%). In another experiment, 69 students were given four math problems, one of which required insight to solve. Again, those exposed to the lit bulb solved the insight problem more often — but there was no difference on the other problems. A third experiment extended the finding to word problems, and in the fourth, a comparison of the unshaded 25-watt bulb with a shaded 40-watt bulb revealed that the bare, less powerful, bulb was more effective. Isn’t it wonderful that the physical representation of the icon for a bright idea should help us have bright ideas?

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[305] Slepian, M. L., Weisbuch M., Rutchick A. M., Newman L. S., & Ambady N.
(2010).  Shedding light on insight: Priming bright ideas.
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 46(4), 696 - 700.

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