Mental & Emotional Health

Aha! Study Examines People as They Are Struck by Sudden Insight

Everybody loves those rare “aha moments” when you suddenly and unexpectedly solve a difficult problem or understand something that had previously perplexed you. Yet researchers had not had a good way to study how people actually experienced what is called “epiphany learning”.

In 2017 research, scientists at The Ohio State University used eye-tracking and pupil dilation technology to see what happens as people figured out how to win a strategy game on a computer. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A release from the university quotes Ian Krajbich, co-author of the study and assistant professor of psychology and economics at Ohio State, as saying, “We could see our study participants figuring out the solution through their eye movements as they considered their options. We could predict they were about to have an epiphany before they even knew it was coming.”

Krajbich conducted the study with James Wei Chen, a doctoral student in economics at Ohio State. Most decision-making research has focused on reinforcement learning, where people gradually adjust their behavior in response to what they learn, according to Chen. “Our work is novel in that we’re looking at this other kind of learning that really has been neglected in past research,” Chen said.

For the study, 59 students played a game on a computer against an unseen opponent. On the screen were 11 numbers (0 to 10) arranged in a circle (like a rotary phone, for those old enough to remember). The students chose one number and then their opponent chose a number. The details of how they won are somewhat complex (it had to be complex for them to have something to figure out), but essentially the optimal game strategy boils down to picking the lower number. Therefore, picking zero was always the best choice.

The participants played 30 times in a row, always against a new opponent. The researchers created an incentive to win by awarding small payments for each victory.

An eye-tracker sitting under the computer screen could tell what numbers they were looking at as they considered their options during parts of the experiment.

After each of the trials, participants had the option of committing to playing one number for the rest of the trials. They were encouraged to do so by the promise of an extra payment. Participants were then reminded what number they chose, what number their opponent had chosen, and whether they had won or lost.

The goal for the researchers was to see when players had that epiphany, that “aha moment,” in which they realized that zero was always the best choice and then committed to playing that number for the rest of the experiment.

The results showed that about 42 percent of players had an epiphany at some point and committed to playing zero. Another 37 percent committed to a number other that zero, suggesting they didn’t learn the right lesson. The remaining 20 percent never committed to a number.