Background: Cognitive insight phenomenon lies at the core of numerous discoveries. Behavioral research indicates four salient features of insightful problem solving: (i) mental impasse, followed by (ii) restructuring of the problem representation, which leads to (iii) a deeper understanding of the problem, and finally culminates in (iv) an "Aha!" feeling of suddenness and obviousness of the solution. However, until now no efforts have been made to investigate the neural mechanisms of these constituent features of insight in a unified framework.
Methodology/principal findings: In an electroencephalographic study using verbal remote associate problems, we identified neural correlates of these four features of insightful problem solving. Hints were provided for unsolved problems or after mental impasse. Subjective ratings of the restructuring process and the feeling of suddenness were obtained on trial-by-trial basis. A negative correlation was found between these two ratings indicating that sudden insightful solutions, where restructuring is a key feature, involve automatic, subconscious recombination of information. Electroencephalogram signals were analyzed in the space x time x frequency domain with a nonparametric cluster randomization test. First, we found strong gamma band responses at parieto-occipital regions which we interpreted as (i) an adjustment of selective attention (leading to a mental impasse or to a correct solution depending on the gamma band power level) and (ii) encoding and retrieval processes for the emergence of spontaneous new solutions. Secondly, we observed an increased upper alpha band response in right temporal regions (suggesting active suppression of weakly activated solution relevant information) for initially unsuccessful trials that after hint presentation led to a correct solution. Finally, for trials with high restructuring, decreased alpha power (suggesting greater cortical excitation) was observed in right prefrontal area.
Conclusions/significance: Our results provide a first account of cognitive insight by dissociating its constituent components and potential neural correlates.