What Are Insight Learning And Insight Psychology?

Updated April 4, 2024by MyTherapist Editorial Team

Have you ever wanted to know the answer to something, and then the answer suddenly came when you least expected it? Welcome to insight learning. In this post, we discuss insight learning and psychology and how this branch of research into the mind can help you see novel solutions to problems you face.

What is insight learning?

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Insight learning is realizing the solution to a problem or question without trial or error or through stimulus-response learning. Instead, it is a learning experience that comes about without conscious effort, although it usually involves previous experience. 

The trial and error problem-solving method is when someone repeatedly tries random different solutions to a problem until they get it right. The stimulus-response association involves associating a particular outcome with a specific stimulus. For example, if a dog hears a dinner bell multiple times right before he gets food, he will associate the bell with food, even if it later rings when food is not present.

Wolfgang Kohler, one of the founders of Gestalt psychology, first proposed the concept of insight learning in the early 20th century. It came about when he tested chimpanzees and other animals in experiments, challenging them to solve specific problems. He realized that chimps could solve these problems without going through trial and error attempts or as a result of stimulus-response learning. Instead, the animals seemed to experience a sudden epiphany in which they saw the solution to a problem after directly working on it while they were doing something else.   

The insight learning chimpanzee experiment

One of Kohler’s experiments involved a chimp named Sultan. Sultan was hungry, and Kohler placed bananas outside its cage. In the cage, Sultan had two bamboo sticks of the same length. However, they were not long enough to reach the bananas. Instead, the chimp needed to attach the two sticks together to make them long enough to get the fruit.

Sultan tried using the sticks separately without success. Then, he pushed one stick forward using the other stick and touched the banana. That was an “A-ha!” moment when Sultan first understood what he needed to do to reach the prize. Later, Sultan was playing with the sticks and discovered they could snap together to make a long stick. At that point, he sudden realized how to get the banana. The next day during another experiment, Sultan applied his new insight, attached the sticks, and grabbed the banana with no trouble. This experiment reveals the gist of insight and insight learning.

The two characteristics of insight learning

Insight learning has two characteristics. First, a person comprehends the problem and tries to solve it through trial and error or by analyzing the situation. When these methods fail, the person moves on to another activity, but their mind continues working on a solution without their awareness. Finally, a solution suddenly occurs to them in a flash of insight. 

Insight learning may feel sudden, but it comes about because the unconscious mind continues to seek solutions. The process starts with what researchers call the pre-solution period, for example, Sultan experimenting with the sticks. Then, a solution comes to mind when doing a seemingly unrelated task because of associations going on unconsciously.

What influences insight learning

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Insight learning is influenced by many factors, including how much sleep someone has the previous night. For example, one experiment divided people who had adequate sleep the night before and people who had no sleep at all. Those who slept doubled their insight compared to those who didn’t sleep.

One’s emotional state can also affect insight performance. For example, if you’re in a more positive mood, you have a higher chance of using insight. Conversely, if you’re in an anxious mood, this decreases your chances of having the breakthrough needed to solve problems.

Having breaks can also improve insight. For example, another experiment found that giving someone a break improved their problem-solving ability compared to someone without breaks. So, how long a rest period was needed to improve insight? It did not matter. Researchers found that whether the break was long or short, it helped the person find the answer they needed.

Here are some of the key findings from research into insight learning:

  • Someone who performs in a group instead of individually solving a problem has a higher chance of reaching an answer. The group effect of insight learning also benefits if there is a short break in the work.
  • People with a more open personality can solve an insight problem easier than someone more close-minded.
  • Those with higher IQs often perform better on an insight problem. However, a person with a low IQ benefits more from hints.
  • According to an Australian study, only 20 percent of people have claimed they solved a problem by insight. This discovery may mean insight learning only happens for some.
  • When one experiences insight, they suddenly change how they perceive a problem, and people with this ability tend to be quick learners.
  • Insight is a sudden realization. There is no gradual piecing together of the answers, but instead, a sudden realization of the solution.
  • A person who experiences insight may generally be sensitive to seeing patterns and quickly recognizing how things are organized. 
  • Animals with higher intelligence experience insight; animals with lower intelligence typically do not.
  • A child typically does not experience insight. Instead, this problem-solving ability improves with age.
  • Past experiences and prior learning can be helpful in attaining insight into problems.
  • Insight learning may be associated with associative learning, where one often perceives similarities in objects or ideas.
  • There is a difference between insight discovered in a lab and insight in a non-lab setting. In a natural environment, insight was a more gradual realization, and the concept of incubation didn’t matter as much.

Insight in psychiatry

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In psychiatry, there is another definition of insight: Insight can be awareness of one’s own mental illness. 

You might know people who have a mental illness and are highly aware of it, always speaking about how it affects them and what they do to treat it. For example, they might talk about what medicines they take, how their therapy session went, etc. On the other hand, you may know people who have an apparent mental illness without being aware of it, and they might be defensive if someone suggests they have a mental health condition. Anosognoisa is the psychiatric term for someone with no comprehension of their mental illness.   

People with particular mental health conditions are more likely to recognize their illness. For example, those with anxiety, phobias, and depression often realize they have a problem. Meanwhile, someone with psychosis or schizophrenia may have little or no insight into their condition. Instead, they may believe their hallucinations are real and that anyone who says they are ill is trying to deceive them. One solution for people without awareness of their mental health condition is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT.)

CBT is often beneficial for people with anxiety and depression, two conditions that can reduce how well a person applies insight in their life. In this form of treatment, the therapist assists the client in examining beliefs and attitudes holding them back in life and finding new perspectives that give them insight and a different perspective into solutions for their life problem and mental health symptoms. 

Researchers have found that online CBT is as effective as talking to a therapist in person, making this form of therapy readily available for almost anyone who wants to gain new insight into ways to thrive. Other research supports the finding that online therapy is helpful for many mental health conditions while also being more accessible and less expensive than traditional, in-office visits with a mental health provider.   

If you are seek new insight into your life challenges, online CBT might be an option worth exploring.  


Insight can be a valuable way to solve problems, and it is more likely to occur if you are well-rested, in a good mood, or working with a group of other people. In psychiatry, insight refers to the ability to be aware of your mental health condition. CBT is a form of therapy that helps people look at limiting beliefs and attitudes and develop more insight into themselves. In addition, research shows that online CBT is effective, economical, and easily accessible.  

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