People are either 'insightfuls' or 'analysts' when it mes to problem-solving ()

This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of WIRED magazine. Be the first to read WIRED's articles in print before they're posted online, and get your hands on loads of additional content by subscribing online.

Consider these three words: pine, crab, sauce. Name a single word that will combine with each of them to make a compound word or familiar phrase. Take a moment to think about this, and then continue reading. 

The solution is apple (pineapple, crabapple, apple sauce). The interesting thing about this type of puzzle is that, like many real-world problems, it can be solved in more than one way. For instance, you can solve it by trying out various possibilities. What goes with pine? Tree goes with pine. Tree also goes with crab, but it doesn't go with sauce. How about cone? And so forth. Cognitive psychologists call this kind of linear thought "analysis". 

You can also solve this with a eureka moment. When this happens, the solution - apple - pops into your awareness, seemingly from nowhere. Cognitive psychologists call this "insight". These ideas often burst into consciousness at unpredictable times.

Over the years, my co-author Mark Beeman and I have tested hundreds of people with these and other kinds of puzzles for various research studies. Almost everybody solves some of them analytically and some insightfully. However, many people tend towards one or the other of these styles of thought. We call these people "insightfuls" and "analysts".

Though many problems can be solved in either way, some are better suited to one or the other. You'd be wasting your time if you waited for a eureka moment to provide you with the sum of ten six-digit numbers. And there is no methodical step-by-step recipe for writing a brilliant novel.

If you are insightful or an analyst, there are quirks that come with this turf. The brains of insightfuls have somewhat reduced frontal-lobe activity compared to analysts'. The brain's frontal lobe focuses attention and organises thought and behaviour in the service of goals. The slightly reduced focus of insightfuls allows their minds to wander far afield and make connections among ideas that initially seem unrelated, hence their creativity. But this means that they can be less organised than analysts, who are more likely to stay on point and get the job done in a timely manner.

We also found that analysts and insightfuls make different mistakes. We give our participants a deadline for solving each problem. Analysts work through problems in a conscious, methodical way. So if they haven't found the solution, to avoid missing the deadline, they offer the idea that they were considering at that time. Sometimes it's correct, but often it's wrong. But when an insightful is faced with a deadline, they can't make a last-minute guess because they haven't had an eureka moment yet. They draw a blank and let the deadline pass. 

Because you can monitor and evaluate your analytical thinking, you can tap it any time to propose an idea. This is reassuring and dependable, although the results may not be your most innovative. Insights are generated by unconscious thought processes that aren't available until you've had your epiphany. You have to wait for them. This can be stressful for insightfuls because they don't know if an insight will arrive in time.

Getting the best result often involves alternating between the insightful mode, to generate ideas, and the analytic mode, to critique and refine them. But analysis blocks nascent insights from breaking through to awareness so, if you are an analyst, plan on scheduling plenty of time to transition into the creative mode before reverting to your analytical state. This involves achieving an open, relaxed mind with a loose agenda and no time pressure. And if you are an insightful - once you've accumulated some interesting ideas - focus. A deadline and background anxiety that comes with it are often enough to shift you into this state. Whether you are an insightful or an analyst, awareness of your basic cognitive style will help you to realise when to stick with your regular mode of thought and when a change of approach will maximise your effectiveness.

John Kounios is co-author, with Mark Beeman, of The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insights, and the Brain (Windmill)

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