What Is Insight? Psychology, Definition, And Practical Examples
Updated June 28, 2019
How do we come to know the things we know? Some things were taught to us directly. Others we learned through observation and repetition. Other times, the knowledge seems to just appear to us out of thin air.
This is what we typically refer to as "insight." Merriam-Webster defines this as "the act or result of apprehending the inner nature of things or of seeing intuitively."
Insight can often be interchanged with words like perception or wisdom. In the world of psychology, we more commonly refer to insight not merely as a means of acquiring knowledge, but rather becoming aware of solutions.
Before we understand insight, especially as it refers to psychology, we must first take a quick detour in understanding knowledge. Without getting too abstract and philosophical, it is important to think about what exactly knowledge is - an awareness or familiarity with objects, events, ideas, or ways of doing things.
Great articulation of this meta concept can be found in the movie Memento (2000) when the main character who suffers from short-term memory loss, explains that despite not being able to remember what he had just done at any given moment, there are things he knows otherwise. For example, he knew the sound of knocking on wood and the feeling of lifting a glass of water. He says this type of knowledge is different because it is a type of memory.
What Is Insight? Psychology Definition
Insight, psychology definition, plays heavily on this notion of knowledge. Through the use of therapeutic theories of insight psychology, solutions to problems can arise out of the ideas and memories we already hold.
Wolfgang Kohler and his work with the Gestalt Theory lead him to some very interesting work in the early 1900s. He experimented with his chimp Sultan. Sultan was hungry, and there was a banana for him just out of reach. The only tools Sultan could use to reach the banana were two bamboo sticks of differing lengths, neither of them long enough to reach the banana.
Eventually, Sultan figured out, simply by playing with the sticks that he could fit them together to form one long rod that would reach the banana. Unlike simple trial and error, Sultan used reason for this solution. He had given up actively trying different ways to get the banana when he discovered the sticks could be combined; the answer came to him in what is commonly referred to as an "Aha!" or "Eureka!" moment.
Key to this insight psychology is idleness - a show of reduced ability to see the finish line. The subject or client will often give up on finding a solution and potentially hopeless as it approaches, and then suddenly all becomes clear, just as was the case with Sultan.
How Do We View Insight?
Among psychologists throughout the years, there are varying interpretations of this concept of our minds conjuring up knowledge and reasoning to present our consciousness with a viable solution to a given task at hand.
- The Nothing-Special View: Insight occurs simply as a natural process of our brains continually taking in information and working to make the best use of it, and thus when presented with a task or issue, a solution will present itself merely as a result of how we already process information.
- The Neo-Gestaltist View: As with Kohler and Sultan, the Gestaltist view states that insight solution problem solving is not as simple as The Nothing-Special View, but rather that there is something particularly special about it, placing it cognitively higher than routine problem-solving.
- Selective-encoding Insight: distinguishing relevant from irrelevant information
- Selective-comparison Insight: renewed perception of the relationship between old information and new information
- Selective-combination Insight: using encoded information and applying it in a novel way.
Insight is marked with four stages of behavioral processes: Impasse, fixation, incubation, and the Eureka moment.
First, one will simply appear to be at their wit's end having run out of ideas on how to solve a problem. A fixation will likely appear as a particular solution attempt will be ineffective, but it will be tried and tried again. Incubation is, as previously mentioned, a key factor - a gap in solution attempts allowing the mind to clear itself of irrelevant information as it pertains to the solution. Finally, Eureka! The answer appears as if it should have been obvious all along.
Insight Psychology Research And Treatment
While there are sure to be readers who are merely interested in these ideas, what makes them most important is their ability to affect how we live our lives, tackle life's obstacles, and live in the best way possible. When dealing with abstract concepts, it is useful to re-frame things into concrete examples.
Take, for instance, Graham Wallas (1926) used the 9-dot puzzle to show how we can arrive at solutions by insight.
At first glance, it seems impossible to complete the task, (connect all nine dots with a pencil without lifting the pencil off the paper) often due to our narrow perception.
Because the dots appear to be in the shape of a rectangle, our brain assumes the solution must be derived by drawing within this rectangle. Once the insight that the rectangle does not exist or limit the puzzle, the solution to "go outside the lines" seems so obvious - Eureka! (9 dots completed)
When we apply the insight psychology definition about mental health, it is not a banana we try to reach or a puzzle on a piece of paper, but rather an insight into our psyche. So many symptoms of so many different mental health issues are challenging to treat because of lack of insight.
Not being aware that a symptom is a symptom of a mental health issue can be detrimental in trying to treat it. Those who suffer from addiction are often in denial that they have an issue, rationalizing that they can stop whenever they like. Believing they do not have a problem is an example of lack of insight. A person amid a manic episode may see their grandiose actions as neuro-typical; the list goes on.
This is a huge obstacle when treating those who need treatment but may not believe they need treatment, or that treatment will be useful. Building a strong relationship between doctor and patient is imperative when this is the case, and trust can help patients overcome this and gain insight.
Only For Psychiatric Disorders? Practical Examples:
It could seem like the average person has a general sense of self-awareness and that insight psychology is not very relevant to them. However, we use psychological understandings of the mind in our daily lives, not just to treat disorders.
Problem-solving comes in all different shapes and sizes. In our relationships, conflict is inevitable. Whether in familial or romantic relationships we can find ourselves at that impasse stage, feeling like we've exhausted all options and this can be extremely stressful for all parties involved and put a severe strain on the relationship bonds themselves.
If a husband and wife find themselves in a pattern of constantly arguing, communication breaking down, there can be a tendency to want to give up on the marriage altogether. Taking time to step back from the situation and let emotions settle and reason to prevail can provide insight. Knowledge of one's self, allowing time to see things from a different perspective can allow that Aha moment to occur.
Of course, this is a generalization as relationships are complex and unique, but these concepts applied when appropriate can help us avoid conflict and avoid stress in all areas of our lives.
Insight, psychology definitions experts will say, is key to anything we are trying to work out in therapy. A patient dealing with social anxiety can shift their paradigm from being afraid of social situations to learning to manage their symptoms from within.
Someone who pushes people away but craves intimacy can benefit from the insight that their actions stem from a fear of abandonment. Someone who often finds themselves in toxic relationships can suddenly realize they are sabotaging their happiness because they believe they do not deserve happiness stemming from childhood trauma. The list of how insight applies to therapy and the processes of our psychology is endless.
Are You Getting The Help You Deserve?
While it is empowering to become aware of these processes and begin to apply them in our personal lives, it can be overwhelming to try to wade through our minds alone. Insight psychology based therapy can be helpful to anyone, regardless of whether they are dealing with particular mental health issues, or simply to improve the quality of everyday life. Even if Insight psychology is not the basis for a therapist's work, we all should take advantage of the benefits of therapy.
If you are in therapy, you should feel comfortable discussing these or any concepts with your therapist and have an open, trusting relationship. If this is not your experience, or if you do not see a therapist, to begin with, you should always feel comfortable changing doctors until you find someone who fits.
Especially if you are not seeing a therapist, you may feel like there is no reason to do so, but that often stems from the stigma that therapy is only for people with problems, as if treatment is a dirty word. The truth could not be further the opposite. Therapy can simply be the break from being tangled up ruminating inside our heads all the time.
There are a great many resources to find licensed therapists but even doing that can be overwhelming. BetterHelp.com is the largest online resource for mental health professionals willing to work with you from the comfort of your own home. With over two thousand licensed therapy professionals available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, you can start improving your life immediately.