The enemy of insight is unconscious constraint. What keeps us from seeing in new ways is the burden of the old, so softly holding one’s mind in a rut that we are unaware of its smothering embrace.
Insight draws its power by restructuring a situation into a more productive form. But in this restructuring, there are costs as well as gains. To see the world anew, an older frame must be cast aside. Academic research on insight misses this issue by looking at puzzles rather than strategic problems.
A standard “insight” problem beloved by academics is the nine dots. Three rows of three dots form a square and the challenge is to draw four straight lines through all the dots without lifting your pen from the paper. The trick is to realize that the corners joining the lines you draw do not have to be placed on a dot or lie inside the imaginary square; a single triangle covers eight and a bisecting line reaches the ninth. The nine-dot problem, like the word problems used by Beeman, Bowden, and Kounios in their MRI and EEG tests, is an intellectual puzzle: it poses an initial difficulty; it must have a solution or it wouldn’t be posed; the solution is obvious once obtained. And one reaches a solution without having to cast aside deep seated ideas or valued beliefs.
By contrast, real-world strategy situations are messy, lacking the neat structure of a puzzle. There is no given definition of the situation; determining if there is a problem and how to state it is part of the problem. An insight, once obtained, is clearly novel but is not necessarily productive. Testing the value of an insight is part of the problem. Most critically, embracing an insight may require you to cast aside whole doctrines, beliefs, philosophies, and ways of organizing work. To adopt a strategic insight one must also push aside an alternate living reality.
As an example, consider public policy in a recession. The recent sharp economic downturn in 2008-09 triggered a resurgence of Keynesian thinking and policy. The dilemma in a recession is that less employment can lead to less spending which, in turn, may lead to still less employment. The Keynesian idea is to break this cycle by increasing government spending to preserve incomes, spending, and employment. This way of looking at things has been a living, breathing, reality among a class of policy makers for generations.
The trouble with this worldview is that it sees the economy as a gigantic factory employing workers who take home their paychecks and then consume. To gain insights into another set of possible policies, one must throw aside this simple model and consider that the economy is composed of sectors. If, as in the present case, the retail and home construction sectors have built too much capacity, the solution is not to try to re-ignite the building of stores or homes. Instead, activity must be shifted to other sectors. That, in turn, means more, not less, unemployment, at least temporarily. As real-estate agents and mortgage brokers become unemployed, a sectoral view of the economy suggests that road-building project will do little to employ them. To gain insights into policies that might actually re-ignite economic growth, one must toss aside simple one-dimensional models that have been taught in thousands of college courses.
Consider, for example, the invention of animation. When I was a boy in fifth grade, I used to amuse the girl sitting next to me with short animated stories about boxes, arrows, and circles. I drew the frames of the short movie on the edges of pages of books. The margins of our history texts and her Nancy Drew novels acquired odd calligraphic markings, undecipherable when seen alone. But as she flipped the pages with her thumb, a secret story unfolded: boxes advanced on and consumed fleeing circles, only to be punctured by flying arrows. Once you understand how an animation is made, it is obvious how to make another.
To make an animation one takes a sequence of images and views them sequentially. The illusion of fluid continuous motion is generated in the brain, stimulated by the quick succession of images. It is often said that this illusion comes from persistence of vision, but it does not. Persistence of vision actually names the opposite illusion—the conversion of motion into a static image. For example, moving a light in a continuous circle creates the appearance of a solid wheel of light.
Despite the availability of paper and pen, no boys amused girls with moving boxes on the edges of books before 1833. In that year the oddly named phenakistoscope was invented. It was a toy—a cardboard disc with a series of slits around the perimeter. Below the slits, a sequence of images was printed. Turn the disc to face a mirror, peer through a slit at the reflected image in the mirror, and spin the disc about its axis. As each slit passes your eye, you see one of the images; the sequence creates the illusion of motion. With a phenakistoscope, one could, for the first time in history, see an image move; see a horse appear to gallop.
The animation insight was not technologically difficult. To make an animation, all it really takes is a pen, a book, and a thumb to flip the pages. The much deeper problem to be overcome was the overwhelmingly powerful universal belief that perception maps reality. If you believe that you perceive continuous motion because motion is continuous, you know that a sequence of still images cannot possibly look like motion—it can only look like what it is, a jerky sequence of still images. To understand animation, one must entertain the radical and disturbing idea that perceived reality is not real, that it is constructed by the mind—that our perceptual system fills in the blanks, performing massive acts of interpolation. Constructing early animations required an uncomfortable shift in philosophy.