Monday, March 17, 2008

Locating the light bulb: neural activity correlates to insight

Neural Activity When People Solve Verbal Problems with Insight (Jung-Beeman et al, 2004)

The "Aha!" moment is, perhaps, one of the most tangible and exciting educational experiences for teachers and students alike; the students finally "get it" - whatever concept or skill "it" might be. Using fMRI and scalp EEG, Beeman et al describe that the experience of insight in solving a problem (followed by an "Aha" moment experience) correlates with a particular type of activity in a specific region of the brain called the right anterior superior temporal gyrus. This front and top region of the right hemisphere's temporal lobe is active in the early stages of problem solving, but also experiences a burst of activity approximately 0.3s prior to the "Aha" moment.

The location of this region in the right hemisphere means that there are some interesting things that we can do to promote insight, such as presenting helpful information and/or potential solutions to the left part of the visual field. Much as our right limbs are controlled by the left hemisphere of our brain, the left part of our visual field is processed by the brain's right hemisphere. The study also points out that individuals vary in their response to solving problems with insight, and even found one individual's brain responded more strongly to non-insight problem solving. So, we shouldn't be surprised, then, that different students need different stimuli and time to achieve insight, nor that some students may not achieve the "Aha" experience in our classrooms. Finally, it's important to keep in mind that the problems studied were word problems, and that the area of the brain found to be active preceding the conscious "Aha" experience is very close to an area of the brain found to be strongly associated with language skills; it's possible that "Aha" experiences are caused by different regions of the brain when the problem solving takes on different modalities.

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