Have you ever had a great idea that came seemingly out of nowhere? The flash of insight is the moment in which we have a sudden realization of how a problem should be solved, or how can we look at it in a different way, which makes it much simpler.

Various discoveries are said to have happened in moments of insight. Take for example the story of Archimedes bursting out of his bathtub naked and shouting Eureka on the streets of Syracuse. He is said to have had the insight of how to measure the amount of gold and silver in king Hiero the II crown, without melting it. You can read the story here.

However, we cannot understand insight by looking at such stories, because:

  • a) We don't know the extent of which such stories are real
  • b) Even if real, they would have happened in the past, and they are hard to replicate, for us to study various aspects of the insight process. We cannot exactly put people in bathtubs and expect them to shout eureka
This is why we need empirical insight problems - that is small problems given in the lab. By small we mean that no special expert knowledge is required to solve such insight problems. They generally require knowledge which most people already have.

Insight problems

Different types of insight problems exist. Some people think that each insight problem is special in its own way. This is because once you get to know the solution, you might find the solution useful only for that particular problem, rather than learn something about how to solve different problems.

Others however think that insight problems can be to a certain extent categorized based on the domain they belong to. They thus split insight problems in verbal insight problems, mathematical insight problems, spatial insight, etc. Here are some examples, courtesy of Dow and Mayer's collection (Dow and Mayer,2004).

Verbal insight:The legendary runner Flash Fleetfoot was so fast that his friends said he could turn off the light switch and jump into bed before the room got dark. How?

Mathematical insight:Which would be worth more, a pound of 10 dollar pure gold coins or half a pound of 20 dollar pure gold coins; or would they be worth the same? Explain your answer.

Practical Insight Problems

Practical insight problems are problems which involve knowledge about objects in the daily use domain. Here are two such insight problems, see if you can solve them:

- The candle problem (Duncker, 1945)

You are given a candle, a box of thumbtacks and a book of matches. You are supposed to fi x the lit candle unto the wall in a way that does not allow the wax to drip below. How do you do it?

- The two strings problem (Maier, 1931)

A person is put in a room that has two strings hanging from the ceiling. The task is to tie the two strings together. However, it is impossible to reach one string while holding the other. What should the person do?

Our work

We are interested in practical insight problems because we already know some things about creative use of objects, from OROC, and the CreaCogs framework (Olteteanu, 2014; Olteteanu, 2016) posits ways in which the process of solving such problems could proceed. We also think that understanding insight in this domain is slightly easier than understanding it in abstract domains which might require a lot of knowledge being engaged in the mind of the solver.

One of our initiatives was to put our understanding of creative principles to work (thus the CreaCogs framework) to see whether we can create more insight problems. A paper submitted on the topic is currently under review:

Another was to give these and classical insight problems to people to solve, and check whether the elements of problem solving we assumed will be there are actually there. This paper is in write-up, I will update with a summary as soon as it is ready.

Other references

Oltețeanu, Ana-Maria (2014) - Two general classes in creative problem-solving? An account based on the cognitive processess involved in the problem structure – representation structure relationship. In Proceedings of the Workshop “Computational Creativity, Concept Invention, and General Intelligence”, editors Besold, T.; Kühnberger, K.-U.; Schorlemmer, M. and Smaill, A., Publications of the Institute of Cognitive Science, vol 01-2014, Osnabrück. -- url

Oltețeanu, Ana-Maria (2016) - From Simple Machines to Eureka in Four Not-So-Easy Steps. Towards Creative Visuospatial Intelligence. In Vincent C. Müller (Ed.), Fundamental Issues of Artificial Intelligence, Synthese Library, Volume 376, pp 159-180. Springer. Print ISBN - 978-3-319-26483-7, Online ISBN - 978-3-319-26485-1, doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-26485-1_11

We assume the figures for the two problems to be in the public domain - we have found no attribution. We are happy to remedy that if pointed to the right source.