The effect of mood on insight

We’re suckers for a scientific study that involves watching a Robin Williams standup routine…

Consider the task of listening to a conversation in a noisy room or concentrating on a particularly challenging puzzle. Research shows that these tasks are typically associated with activation of the anterior cingulate cortex in the brain. Cells in this area are active when we narrow our attention to concentrate on a difficult task.

But what about insight – that ability to quickly “see” the solution to a puzzle or problem (think “AHA!”), rather than solve it by brute force? Insight requires a widening of associations, rather than a narrowing. For insight to occur, the brain must be open to looser associations and connections. We must, as the scientists would say, be in a “diffuse attentional state.”

So how do we get there? The New York Times summarizes research that indicates mood is a significant factor, and that humor (here’s where the Robin Williams part comes in) is important:

In a just completed study, researchers at Northwestern University found that people were more likely to solve word puzzles with sudden insight when they were amused, having just seen a short comedy routine.

“What we think is happening,” said Mark Beeman, a neuroscientist who conducted the study with Karuna Subramaniam, a graduate student, “is that the humor, this positive mood, is lowering the brain’s threshold for detecting weaker or more remote connections” to solve puzzles.

So next time you’re stuck on a problem, should you just remember the funny joke you heard last week?

The findings fit with dozens of experiments linking positive moods to better creative problem-solving. “The implication is that positive mood engages this broad, diffuse attentional state that is both perceptual and visual,” said Dr. Anderson. “You’re not only thinking more broadly, you’re literally seeing more. The two systems are working in parallel.”

The Times Web site has a pretty cool interactive experiment that you can use to test the effect of mood on your own insight. Check it out here.

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