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Psychol Sci. 2006 Oct;17(10):882-90.

The prepared mind: neural activity prior to problem presentation predicts subsequent solution by sudden insight.

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Department of Psychology, Drexel University, MS 626, 245 N. 15th St., Philadelphia, PA 19102-1192, USA.


Insight occurs when problem solutions arise suddenly and seem obviously correct, and is associated with an "Aha!" experience. Prior theorizing concerning preparation that facilitates insight focused on solvers' problem-specific knowledge. We hypothesized that a distinct type of mental preparation, manifested in a distinct brain state, would facilitate insight problem solving independently of problem-specific knowledge. Consistent with this hypothesis, neural activity during a preparatory interval before subjects saw verbal problems predicted which problems they would subsequently solve with, versus without, self-reported insight. Specifically, electroencephalographic topography and frequency (Experiment 1) and functional magnetic resonance imaging signal (Experiment 2) both suggest that mental preparation leading to insight involves heightened activity in medial frontal areas associated with cognitive control and in temporal areas associated with semantic processing. The results for electroencephalographic topography suggest that noninsight preparation, in contrast, involves increased occipital activity consistent with an increase in externally directed visual attention. Thus, general preparatory mechanisms modulate problem-solving strategy.

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