Insight and the Importance of Sleeping Late

It’s interesting, being a teacher.  I often experience a sort of double vision –  my memories of being a student and my present experience as a teacher.   I particularly remember the frustration, as a student,  of having some one else interfere with my creative process.   And yet these days is that not exactly what I’m doing as a teacher?

I have a personal rule, as an artist, to not think too hard about the meaning of what I am creating.  If I look directly at the concept  – it becomes pinned down, unoriginal, simplified and dead.   Instead of explaining anything, I keep these thoughts  in my peripheral vision, as it were, allowing them to settle and grow.

Am I allowing my students a similar process?  They might not be creating artworks, but surely the fundamental conceptual processes are the same?

Jessie from Jezzeblog pointed me to an article that might be helpful in answering this question.  It covers the research of  Mark Jung – Beeman on what leads to “moments of insight”.  The research focussed primarily on insight involving language games, but I believe it can be applied more broadly.

We have all heard about “left brain” and “right brain” thinking.  Some of the theories are rather dubious, others more interesting. Jung-Beeman believes that the secret to why insight happens – or does not happen – lies in which hemisphere of the brain we use to process the problem.   For example, in dealing with language: the left hemisphere stores the primary meaning of the word (connotation) but the right hemisphere deals with the denotation – for example, the emotional charge of a sentence, its metaphoric meaning.

For insight to take place, we must make connections between unexpected aspects – and for this to take place, we are more likely to use the right hemisphere of the brain, with its “more broadly tuned” cells.

So far, so not so new.   But here it starts to get interesting, particularly from the point of view of a teacher:

Johnathan Schooler demonstrated that it is possible to interfere with insight by making people explain their thought processes while trying to solve a puzzle.  He called this process “verbal overshadowing”.  Jung-Beeman explains this by saying that the act of verbal explanation shifts activity to the left hemisphere, causing people to ignore the more subtle associations.

At the moment, much of our teaching process involves interrupting a students creative process and asking them to verbally explain and justify their insights.  Could it be that we are forcing this process of “verbal overshadowing” and so depriving students of the opportunity for achieving new insights?

Are there better ways to guide students through this process?

And here is another thought:

For moments of insight to happen, the brain needs to make “distant and unprecedented” connections.

“While its commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to focus, minimize distractions and pay attention only to relevant details, this clenched state of the mind may inhibit the sort of creative connections that lead to sudden breakthroughs”

The article lists many examples of people who solve difficult problems through sudden insight, and the moment of insight nearly always happens when they are distracted or relaxed.

“Although the answer seemed to appear out of nowhere, the mind was carefully preparing itself for the breakthrough. The suddenness of the insight is preceded by a burst of brain activity. A small fold of tissue on the surface of the right hemisphere, the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG), becomes unusually active in the second before the insight. Once the brain is sufficiently focused on the problem, the cortex needs to relax, to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere that will provide the insight. As Kounios sees it, the insight process is an act of cognitive deliberation transformed by accidental, serendipitous connections.”

To sum it up, Jung-Beeman says:

“If you are in an environment that forces you to produce and produce, you feel very stressed, and you are not going to have any insights.”

This is certainly not the environment that we create for our students, or, in fact, for ourselves. If anything, there we often romanticise the hardships of sleep deprivation and stress as a sort of “foundry” for new ideas and innovation.  And yet here we have evidence that these precious “moments of insight” are more likely to occur  when we have just woken up, or when we are engaging in relaxing activity that has nothing to do with the problem we are trying to solve.

It seems to me that there are two issues here:

  • challenging our present system of  idea development, which operates mostly in the verbal realm and separates the phases of idea generation from that of crafting.
  • challenging the ways in which we motivate students to work, and how we fill their time.

You might also like to read:

1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Jesse
    Mar 28, 2009 @ 10:24:02

    This is why, I think, making things by hand is useful to me. The period of making is the quiet time I need to solve other problems I’m working on.

    I did find this useful: “Poincaré insisted that the best way to
    think about complex problems is to immerse yourself in the problem until you
    hit an impasse. Then … you
    should find a way to distract yourself … The answer will arrive when you
    least expect it.”

    Insights are always the result of hard work. Getting stuck seems to be crucial to gaining an insight, but you first need to have stuffed your head with all the information it will need.

    Once you’ve had the moment, it’s easy to take idea apart and explain it verbally, and students should be able to do that, in order to properly evaluate their own work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: