Insight learning is the sudden realization of a solution to a problem. It is the result of seeing the connection between variables in a situation that were not recognized previously.
Today, this is commonly referred to as the “A-ha” moment, often signified in emoji or image form by a lightbulb appearing over one’s head.
Examples of insight learning include coming to a realization when walking in the woods, coming to a sudden moment of clarity during an experiment, or overcoming a threshold concept in mathematics.
Insight Learning Definition and Properties
Wolfgang Köhler (1925; 1959) is the first modern scholar to identify insight learning during his studies with chimpanzees.
He was interested in studying their ability to problem solve and thus, presented them with various scenarios and observed their attempted solutions.
As quoted by Vonk et al. (2021),
“Köhler (1925/2019) defined insight as the awareness of functional relationships in a given situation and its rapid application to formulate a solution to the present situation” (p. 9).
According to Shettleworth (2012) insight learning has three general properties:
- Impasse: the solution emerges after an impasse of failed attempts and is not the result of methodical trial and error.
- Restructuring: the solution involves a restructuring of the problem in a novel way.
- A-Ha Moment: the solution appears suddenly, combined with a subjective “A-ha” experience.
Insight Learning Examples
- Not being able to generate a design solution for several days and then realizing the solution while on a walk through the woods.
- Being stuck in the composition of an original musical score and then hearing the missing notes while on the bus daydreaming.
- Not knowing which of 2 job offers to accept until a friend says something that makes the best option crystal clear.
- Trying out different recipes that all seem to fail. Then taking a break for a few days before realizing the crucial missing ingredient.
- Being unable to figure out how to make the plot in your screenplay seem plausible until seeing the solution while washing your hair in the shower.
- Working on the budget for a demanding project and then suddenly figuring out several ways to be more cost-effective.
- Not realizing your partner has been unfaithful until something your best friend says spawns a sudden moment of clarity.
- Trying to create a new line of code but being stuck on a bug until it comes to you when shooting hoops with friends several days later.
- Team members going through a frustrating brainstorming session until finally someone says something that is wrong, but sparks another idea that will work.
- Being able to generate 9 unique examples of insight learning, but getting stuck on #10 until closing the computer and going for a walk in the rain.
Case Studies and Research Basis
1. The Mentality Of Apes (Köhler, 1913)
In 1913, Wolfgang Köhler became the director of a research station in the Canary Islands. At that time in science, there was considerable debate as to whether animals were capable of intelligent problem solving, or just able to solve problems haphazardly or as a result of conditioning.
Köhler presented various animals with a series of problems (fetching a fruit) that could only be resolved by overcoming an obstacle.
Time and time again, Köhler referred to a time delay between early failed attempts at solving the problem, and the eventual solution being found.
“After many failures, [Tschego] finally sits down quietly. But her eyes wander and soon fix on the little tree, which she had left lying a little way behind her, and all of a sudden, she seizes it quickly and surely, breaks off a branch, and immediately pulls the objective to her with it.”(Köhler, 1925, pp. 111–112)
The time delay is considered a key property of insight learning.
2. Darwin’s Thinking Path (Darwin, 1859)
Darwin is considered to be one of the greatest theorists in history. He developed insights into human evolution that still impact our thinking today. Darwin was as an avid walker and developed many aspects of his greatest insights while walking down his trail.
As Jeremy DeSilva explains:
“Darwin’s best thinking, however, was not done in his study. It was done outside, on a lowercase d–shaped path on the edge of his property. Darwin called it the Sandwalk. Today, it is known as Darwin’s thinking path.”
Walking clears the mind…lets it wander freely…and often leads to insights that would have never occurred if sitting at a desk under fluorescent lights.
Darwin’s often misunderstood survival of the fittest is illustrated in this quote:
“…those individuals whose functions are most out of equilibrium with the modified aggregate of external forces, will be those to die; and that those will survive whose functions happen to be most nearly in equilibrium with the modified aggregate of external forces.”(Darwin, 1859, p. 444)
3. Animal Insights (Goodall, 1990)
Before being offended, consider the problem presented to crows in the above video. Do you think you could solve it? Of course you could, and probably much faster than a crow. The purpose of this thought experiment, however, is to highlight the issue of what separates people from animals.
The more research conducted is in comparative psychology, the more difficult it becomes to define human beings in a way that completely precludes animals.
Over the years there have been many concepts proposed to distinguish humans from animals: social dynamics, communication, cooperative problem-solving, tool use, and…insight learning.
Each distinction has so far failed to pass the test of time.
As Jane Goodall (1990) states, a
“succession of experiments that, taken together, clearly prove that many intellectual abilities that had been thought unique to humans were actually present, though in a less highly developed form, in other, non-human beings” (p. 18).
The behaviorists saw the “A-ha” moment observed in animal problem-solving as a result of accumulated stimulus-response associations.
However, Wolfgang Köhler’s experiments led him to the conclusion that the chimpanzees and apes in his studies were engaged in cognitive processing. In fact, his characterizations of their problem-solving abilities would fit our definition today of insight learning.
4. Insight Discovery (Pearce et al., 2022)
As the world becomes more interconnected, cross-cultural dynamics and shared challenges become more prevalent. Therefore, conventional approaches and mindsets to multi-faceted issues and problem-solving are becoming less applicable.
Pearce et al. (2022) suggest that “particular expertise that can identify new connections between diverse knowledge fields is needed in order to integrate diverse perspectives…and develop novel solutions” (p. 1).
“Traditionally, institutions of higher education have been organized around providing students with the competences to succeed in individual disciplines rather than to have the capacity to solve problems in the real world” (p. 8).
The authors introduce an “insight discovery process” (IDP) as a path of breaking conventional mindsets and integrating more varied perspectives.
Over a 4-year period, a Transdisciplinary Lab (TdLab) was designed to tackle environmental issues. The program took place in Wislikofen Switzerland and included master’s students, Ph.D. candidates and postdoctoral researchers from 13 countries.
The researchers conclude that IDP can play a role in addressing sustainability and climate change, provided a means for “transformative learning,” and facilitates transdisciplinary collaboration.
Insight learning occurs after a delay in failed problem-solving attempts. The solution appears suddenly and is often referred to as an “A-ha” moment.
Although there are specific conditions for a solution to qualify as insight learning, the meaning of the term is sometimes defined more flexibly.
Researchers in non-Western countries may have slightly different definitions of the term. Others have devised unique educational programs with the goal of generating transdisciplinary perspectives on today’s most pressing challenges.
Insight learning also has an interesting history of debate among researchers in comparative psychology.
Some of the field’s greatest minds, including Edward Thorndike, Jane Goodall, and Wolfgang Köhler, conducted experiments and observations to better understand the nuances of both animal and human problem-solving.
Danek, A. H., Fraps, T., von Müller, A., Grothe, B., & Öllinger, M. (2014). It’s a kind of magic: What self-reports can reveal about the phenomenology of insight problem solving. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1408. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01408
Darwin, C. (1859). On the origin of species. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Goodall, J. (1990). Through a window. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Köhler, W. (1925/1959). The mentality of apes. (E. Winter, Trans.). New York, USA: Vintage Books.
Pearce, B.J., Deutsch, L., Fry, P., Marafatto, F. F., & Lieu, J. (2022). Going beyond the AHA! moment: insight discovery for transdisciplinary research and learning. Humanities & Social Sciences Communications, 9, 123. https://doi.org/10.1057/s41599-022-01129-0
Povinelli, D., & Bering, J. (2002). The mentality of apes revisited. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11, 115-119. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8721.00181
Sahriana, N., Suminar, T., & Pranoto, Y. K. S. (2020). Development of maritime insight learning tools for ocean literacy in children aged 5-6 years old. Journal of Primary Education, 9(5), 536-545.
Shettleworth, S. J. (2012). Do animals have insight, and what is insight anyway? Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology / Revue canadienne de psychologie expérimentale, 66(4), 217–226.
Thorpe, W. H. (1943). A type of insight learning in birds. British Birds, 37, 29-31.
Vonk, J., Vincent, J., & O’Connor, V. (2021). It’s hard to be social alone: Cognitive complexity as transfer within and across domains. Comparative Cognition & Behavior Reviews, 16, 1-35. https://doi.org/10.3819/CCBR.2021.160003