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Cognitive conflict and restructuring: The neural basis of two core components of insight

1 Experimental and Theoretical Psychology, Universität Heidelberg, Heidelberg, Germany
2 German Center for Vertigo and Dizziness (DSGZ), Klinikum der Universität München, Marchioninistr. 15, 81377 Munich, Germany

Special Issues: Neural Systems that Support Creative and Insightful Problem Solving

Sometimes, the solution to a difficult problem simply pops into mind. Such a moment of sudden comprehension is known as “insight”. This fundamental cognitive process is crucial for problem solving, creativity and innovation, yet its true nature remains elusive, despite one century of psychological research. Typically, insight is investigated by using spatial puzzles or verbal riddles. Broadening the traditional approach, we propose to tackle this question by presenting magic tricks to participants and asking them to find out the secret method used by the magician. Combining this approach with cueing in an fMRI experiment, we were able to break down the insight process into two underlying components: cognitive conflict and restructuring. During cognitive conflict, problem solvers identify incongruent information that does not match their current mental representation. In a second step this information is restructured, thereby allowing them to correctly determine how the magic trick was done. We manipulated the occurrence of cognitive conflict by presenting two types of cues that lead participants to either maintain their perceptual belief (congruent cue) or to change their perceptual belief (incongruent cue) for the mechanism behind the magic trick. We found that partially overlapping but distinct networks of brain activity were recruited for cognitive conflict and restructuring. Posterior, predominantly visual brain activity during cognitive conflict reflected processes related to prediction error, attention to the relevant cue-specific sensory domain, and the default brain state. Restructuring on the other hand, showed a highly distributed pattern of brain activity in regions of the default mode, executive control networks, and salience networks. The angular gyrus and middle temporal gyrus were active in both cognitive conflict and restructuring, suggesting that these regions are important throughout the insight problem solving process. We believe this type of approach towards understanding insight will give lead to a better understanding of this complex process and the specific role that different brain regions play in creative thought.
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