RE: Tracing the Spark of Creative Problem-Solving

Article:  Carey, B. (2010). “Tracing the Spark of Creative Problem-Solving.” Visited on October 29th, 2012:

Summary:  Puzzles come in a wide variety of formats. They are appealing to people both because of the dopamine rush of arriving at a solution, and also because they shift the brain into an open, playful state.

Puzzles are solved in two main ways — either through insight thinking or analytical thinking.  Insight thinking is when an answer comes to a person suddenly, seemingly out of the blue. Analytical thinking involves employing a systematic approach of testing available possibilities. Both types of thinking are typically required to solve challenging problems. The differences between the two approaches have been debated by scientists, but current experiments and brain-imaging studies indicate that they are separate abilities requiring truly different brain states.

Test subjects are more likely to solve puzzles using insight thinking when they display brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex. This activity is associated with the widening of attention, making the brain more open to distraction and to detecting weaker connections.

Positive mood appears to shift the brain towards the state required for insight thinking. In experiments where subjects are shown a humorous video before being asked to solve puzzles they are more likely to solve them through sudden insight. Subjects who are shown a scary or boring video before being asked to solve the same puzzles are more likely to solve them through trial and error, and solve fewer puzzles overall.

Conceptual Design:  When designing a new product, are we attempting to foster creative problem solving? Would we like users to widen their attention and increase their chances for picking up on weak connections, or do we need them to focus narrowly on a more limited set of options?  The right answers will depend on the type of product being designed.  The idea that users can be primed for more creative and insightful thinking could serve as the basis for products to prep people before they carry out creative work.

Interaction Design:  Knowing how much enjoyment puzzles bring to many users can prove instructive when designing how they will interact with a product.  If their interactions can be shaped as problem-solving puzzles they may be more involved with the product, and their open and perceptive brain state may carry over to other tasks as well.

Interface Design:  The mood of our interface can steer the manner in which users solve problems or puzzles. By nudging them towards a more entertained or playful mood though the interface design we will increase their chances of successful problem solving through insight. Adding a “fun” feature or tone can extend beyond the immediate satisfaction to alter overall mood and patterns or perception.