What Is Insight? Psychology, Definition, And Practical Examples

By Mary Elizabeth Dean|Updated April 14, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Lauren Guilbeault, LMHC
What is insight? Merriam-Webster defines it as “the act or result of apprehending the inner nature of things or of seeing intuitively.” Psychology sees insight not merely as a means of acquiring insightful knowledge, but rather as the act of becoming aware of insightful solutions. Continue reading to learn more.
 
insight, what is insight, woman laying on bed reading a book

What Is Insight?

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. 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.
 
What is insight in media? Great articulation of this meta concept can be found in the movie Memento (2000) when the main character, who experiences 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 form of memory.

Insight Is A Way To Go Deeper

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. If you're still asking yourself, "what is insight?", read on.
 

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 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.

The key to this insight psychology is idleness or a show of reduced ability to see the finish line. The subject or client will often give up on finding a solution. Potentially hopeless as it approaches, they may then suddenly see things with new clarity, just as was the case with Sultan.

How We View Insight

Among psychologists, 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. When presented with a task or issue, a solution will arrive 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. Instead, there is something particularly special about it, placing it cognitively higher than routine problem solving.
  • The Three-Process View: This view posits that there are three individual types of insight
    • 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. It is 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, woman writing, there is a mug and there is a plant

Insight Research

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 reframe things into concrete examples. Take, for instance, Graham Wallas, who in 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!

When we apply the insight psychology definition to 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 experience substance use disorders 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 a 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 helping those who need treatment. 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.

Insightful 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. 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, with 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, let emotions settle, and allowing 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.

A relationship is often complex and unique. Applying these concepts when appropriate can help us avoid conflict and stress in all areas of our lives. What is this phenomenon in psychology?

Insight, psychology definition 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 may 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 as a result of childhood trauma. The list of how insight applies to therapy and the processes of our psychology is endless.

insight, insightful insight therapy

What To Expect From Insight Therapy

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 trying 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 while maintaining 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 counselors 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 feeling often stems from the stigma that therapy is only for people with problems, as if treatment is a dirty word. This could not be further from the truth. Therapy can give you the break you need from being tangled up, ruminating inside your head.

Methods of therapy have been specifically aligned around eliciting insight. For example, researchers have developed metacognitive insight and reflection therapy (MERIT) to help individuals recover from psychosis. Following a three-month trial, a 2020 study found significantly improved metacognition and other benefits from administering MERIT. These insights were particularly pronounced among those who did not understand or believe that they had a problem, a common effect of psychosis. MERIT is increasingly available from psychologists around the U.S. as well as those who practice online. This is important to note because many who experience psychological issues do not seek treatment. A recent survey revealed that nearly a third of respondents would not seek in-person counseling, but would do so if online therapy were available.

Don’t forget: help is available wherever you have internet access. If you believe something is blocking you from gaining insight, or if others have suggested you seek help, online therapy can provide meaningful treatment. 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.

Read reviews clients have said about therapy.

BetterHelp Reviews

“In the short time I have been with James, he is made me feel valued, important and he is wonderful at staying in close contact. He asks great questions, listens well but also interacts and interrupts when he needs to with really insightful questions/statements. He is warm, perceptive and thoughtful. I look forward to speaking to him every week and he helps me understand my own reactions to situations.”

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