Unconscious Insights

Date of Original Version




Abstract or Description

From early in the history of psychology, theorists have argued about whether insights are initially unconscious or whether they are conscious from the start. Empirically identifying unconscious insights has proven difficult, however: How can we tell if people have had an insight if they do not tell us they have had one? Fortunately, although obtaining evidence of unconscious insights is difficult, it is not impossible. The present article describes an experiment in which evidence of unconscious insights was obtained. Almost 90% of second graders generated an arithmetic insight at an unconscious level before they were able to report it. Within five trials of the unconscious discovery, 80% of the children made the discovery consciously, as indicated by their verbal reports. Thus, the initial failure to report the insight could not be attributed to the children lacking the verbal facility to describe it. The results indicate that at least in some cases, insights arise first at an unconscious level, and only later become conscious. Rising activation of the new strategy may be the mechanism that leads children to become conscious of using it.




Published In

Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9, 3, 79-83.