Seeing What Others Don't

The remarkable ways we gain insights

Insight Rush

To Keep Us Mentally Flexible, Insights Carry an Emotional Charge.

Much has been written about the nature of insight, the way insight drives innovation, suggestions for increasing insights, and so forth. But I haven’t seen a great deal on the emotional facet of insights. When someone has a flash of illumination, we know that it feels exciting. An insight has just been created, and the excitement that accompanies it is one of the signs.

I think the emotional experience goes beyond a momentary pulse of excitement. I think there is a more prolonged reaction that I am calling an insight rush.

When it happens, we want it to happen again. It’s not like walking into a restaurant and ordering a favorite dish. Just the opposite. It’s more like asking the waiter for a recommendation — a dish we’ve never heard of before. We don’t know what to expect and we bite into it hoping that it will delight us in ways we cannot imagine.

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Otherwise, we might find it too easy to settle into comfortable routines. We might order our favorite dishes again and again, a strategy that reduces the risk of getting something we don’t like. By settling into a routine, we cut the chance of making mistakes, but we also reduce the chance of making a discovery.

The forces that drive insight are very important for shaking up our thinking and getting us out of comfortable routines. One force is noticing connections and coincidences and being curious about unfamiliar events. A second force is noticing contradictions and anomalies — things that violate our expectations. A third force is galvanized when we are stuck and search for assumptions, especially hidden assumptions, that may be flawed. Each of these forces move us out of our comfort zone and stretch the way we think. Each of these forces contributes to insights. Without them, our thinking would grow more and more stereotyped and rigid.

Because these forces are so important for keeping us mentally flexible, I wonder if they are stamped in with an emotional kick, which we experience as an insight rush each time we make a discovery — an emotional kick that drives us to want to make more discoveries. The insight rush isn’t the same as a need for cognition (the tendency to want to make sense of things and to enjoy the process of effortful thinking) because the insight rush centers on the experience of the insight itself, and motivates us to pursue insights and to gain more of them. The insight rush gives us an aesthetic experience when we encounter a new idea that alters our thinking. After he and Francis Crick discovered the double helix model of DNA, Watson wrote that it was too pretty not to be true. Watson and Crick felt this, but so have many others who learned of their finding. I am not sure how common is an aesthetic response to beautiful new ideas, whether our own or the ideas of others, but it is likely a part of the experience of an insight rush.

Follow me on Twitter @KleInsight for updates on decisionmaking and insight. 

Gary Klein is Senior Scientist at MacroCognition LLC; his most recent book is Seeing What Others Don't: The remarkable ways we gain insights.

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