What Is Insight? Definition, Psychology, And Practical Examples

Medically reviewed by Kimberly L Brownridge
Updated February 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines insight as “the act or result of apprehending the inner nature of things or of seeing intuitively.” Psychology sees insight not as a means of acquiring insightful knowledge but rather as the act of becoming aware of insightful solutions. It can be helpful to understand both definitions of insight to know how to use it to improve your mental health. 

Getty/AnnaStills
Insight helps us find solutions to “impossible” problems

What’s the difference between insight and knowledge? 

Some subjects may be taught directly, while you can learn others from observation and repetition. You might notice that some knowledge seems to appear out of thin air. Before understanding insight psychology, taking a detour to understanding knowledge can be beneficial. 

What is knowledge? 

Knowledge is an awareness or familiarity with objects, events, ideas, or actions learned from experience, being taught, or instinct from birth. Articulation of this 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 completed a few moments ago, he could understand inherent knowledge. 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.

How does insight relate to knowledge? 

In psychology, insight plays heavily on this notion of knowledge. Through therapeutic theories of insight psychology or insight therapy, solutions to problems can arise out of the ideas and memories you hold.

Wolfgang Kohler and his work with the Gestalt theory led him to some interesting findings in the early 1900s. He experimented with his chimp Sultan. In his experiment, Sultan was hungry. A banana was held out of reach. The only tools Sultan could use to reach the banana were two bamboo sticks of differing lengths, neither long enough to reach the banana.

Eventually, Sultan figured out that he could fit them together by playing with the sticks to form one long rod that would reach the banana. Unlike 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!” moment.

The key to this insight psychology is idleness or a reduced ability to see the finish line. Like Sultan, the subject or client may give up on finding a solution. As desperation approaches, they may use creativity and insight by combining their current knowledge of events with new knowledge. 

How psychologists interpret insight

Among psychologists, there are varying interpretations of how knowledge and reasoning combine to present the consciousness with a viable solution to a given task. Below are a few theories. 

The nothing special view 

In the “nothing special” theory, insight occurs as a natural process of the brain continually taking in information and working to make the best use of it. A solution may arrive when presented with a task or issue due to how a person processes information. In this theory, no special or esoteric significance is given to intuition. 

The neo-Gestaltist view

As with Kohler and Sultan, the Gestaltist view states that insight solution problem solving is not simple. Instead, they believe it has a special quality, placing it cognitively higher than routine problem-solving.

The three process view 

The three-process view posits that there are three individual types of insight, including the following: 

  • 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.

The four stages of behavioral processes

Insight is marked by four stages of behavioral processes, including impasse, fixation, incubation, and the eureka moment.

  1. Impasse: An impasse occurs when one gives up or reaches an area they struggle to solve. 
  2. Fixation: Fixation may be a particular solution attempted that is ineffective but attempted more than once, often with an obsessive focus. 
  3. Incubation: Incubation is a gap in solution attempts allowing the mind to clear itself of irrelevant information pertaining to the solution. 
  4. Eureka: Eureka involves the appearance of a solution in the individual’s mind that suddenly becomes clear. 
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What does psychological research say about insight? 

Insight may affect how you live your life, tackle obstacles, and practice mental health and well-being. Below are a few studies on insight. 

Graham Wallas and the nine dot puzzle

When dealing with abstract concepts, reframing them into concrete examples may be helpful. For example, Graham Wallas used the nine-dot puzzle in 1926 to show how individuals can arrive at solutions by insight. The goal was to connect all nine dots with a pencil without lifting the pencil off the paper and using the fewest possible lines. At first glance, it may seem impossible to complete the task due to a narrow perception.

Because the dots appear to be in a rectangle shape, your brain may assume the solution must be derived by drawing a rectangle. Once the insight that the rectangle does not exist or limit the puzzle, the solution to “go outside the lines” may be more prominent. You may be able to solve the puzzle using triangles or a zig-zag pattern. 

Responses to the nine dot puzzle and banana problem

When you apply the insight psychology definition to mental health, it is not a banana or a puzzle on a piece of paper but rather an insight into the psyche. Many symptoms of mental health conditions are challenging to treat because of a lack of insight.

Not being aware that a symptom is a symptom of a mental health condition can be detrimental to finding the correct treatment. For example, those who experience substance use disorders may struggle to see that their substance use is a problem, rationalizing it by saying they can stop when they want to. Believing they do not have a problem can be a lack of insight. In these cases, having a guiding voice like a therapist can be beneficial. 

If you are struggling with substance use, contact the SAMHSA National Helpline at (800) 662-4357 to receive support and resources.

What are a few examples of insight? 

Anyone can use insight, which doesn’t necessarily relate to psychology or treating mental illness. Problem-solving comes in all different shapes and sizes. In relationships, conflict can be an area where individuals use insight. Whether in familial or romantic relationships, you may find yourself at an impasse stage, feeling you’ve exhausted all options. Conflict at an impasse can be stressful for all parties and make the relationship seem hopeless. Below are a couple of examples that showcase insight. 

Relationship example 

If two spouses experience a pattern of constantly arguing, with communication breaking down, there can be a tendency to want to give up on the marriage. Taking time to step back from the situation, let emotions settle, and allow reason to prevail can provide insight. Introspection psychology, an act of examining or observing thoughts, emotions, and perceptions, allows individuals to gain insight. Knowledge of oneself and time to breathe can offer a different perspective for the “Aha!” moment to occur. A relationship is often complex and unique. Applying these concepts when appropriate may help you avoid conflict and stress. 

Therapy example 

Insight can also be helpful in a therapeutic session. For example, clients with social anxiety can shift their paradigm from fear 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. Many people may experience “Aha!” moments of eureka in therapy. 

Getty/Halfpoint Images
Insight helps us find solutions to “impossible” problems

What to expect from insight psychology therapy

While it can be empowering to become aware of the above processes and apply them in your personal life, it can be overwhelming to wade through the ideas in your mind alone. In therapy, you can discuss these concerns with your therapist while maintaining an open, trusting relationship. If this is not your experience or you find in-person therapy inaccessible due to finances, location, or accessibility, you might try online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp.

Some methods of therapy have been aligned to elicit 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 to psychologists around the US, as well as those who practice online. 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. Online therapy continues to gain popularity, with four out of ten Americans using it since 2021. 

Takeaway

Insight psychology-based therapy can be helpful to anyone, regardless of whether they are living with a mental illness or trying to improve their insight. Consider contacting a licensed therapist to learn more about how insight therapy might guide you.

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