No doubt many of us have all experienced a situation where, after long hours of trying to solve a certain problem, we give up, and go get a break, only to come back and solve the problem within moments. This appears to be a somewhat commonplace situation. However, the science behind it is much more complex.
According to the authors of the study – Professor Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management, Chen-Bo Zhong from the University of Toronto and Ap Dijkstererhuis of Radboud University Nijmegen – unconscious thought results in creative problem-solving in a two step process.
But this is not as simple as having an “Aha!” moment and moving on. The trio note that while the distraction might be helpful in coming up with the solution, a period of steady thought must follow so as to understand the solution and how those solutions can be applied. Similarly, while such moments might be useful in dealing with particularly tricky problems, easier problems should be confronted the old fashion way.
The researchers conducted two experiments to test their idea. In the first experiment, 94 subjects participated in a Remote-Association Test (RAT), which tests for creativity. In this test, participants were presented with three words (a triad) and were asked to come up with a fourth word that is linked with all three words. For example, if presented with the words cheese, sky and ocean, the correct answer would be blue (blue cheese, blue sky, blue ocean).
Subjects were shown nine very difficult triads (but were instructed not to solve them yet) and were then divided into groups. For five minutes following the RAT, participants were either concentrating on the triads they had just seen (the conscious thought group) or engaging in a test completely unrelated to the RAT (the unconscious thought group).
Following the five-minute interval, all of the subjects participated in a lexical decision test. During this test, subjects were shown sequences of letters and had to indicate as quickly as possible if the sequences were English words or not. The sequences presented included answers to the RAT triads, random words and non-words. Finally, subjects were again shown the RAT items and had to write down their answers.
The second experiment involved 36 subjects and had a similar set up to the previous experiment, although the RAT triads presented were much easier to solve compared to those in the first experiment.
The results pointed to members of the unconscious thought group in the lexical decision test as having much faster responses to the letter sequences. The RAT problems however saw both groups poll equally well.
"Conscious thought is better at making linear, analytic decisions, but unconscious thought is especially effective at solving complex problems," said Galinsky and his co-authors. "Unconscious activation may provide inspirational sparks underlying the 'Aha!' moment that eventually leads to important discoveries."