Tracking the neurodynamics of insight: A meta-analysis of neuroimaging studies

Biol Psychol. 2018 Oct;138:189-198. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2018.08.018. Epub 2018 Aug 28.


The nature of insight has been the interdisciplinary focus of scientific inquiry for over 100 years. Behavioral studies and biographical data suggest that insight, as a form of creative cognition, consists of at least four separate but intercorrelated stages as described by Wallas (1926). Yet no quantitative evidence was available for insight- or insight-stage-specific brain mechanisms that generalize across various insight tasks. The present work attempted, for one, to present an integrated and comprehensive description of the neural networks underlying insight and, for another, to identify dynamic brain mechanisms related to the four hypothetical stages of insight. To this end, we performed two quantitative meta-analyses: one for all available studies that used neuroimaging techniques to investigate insight, and the other for the phasic brain activation of insight drawn from task characteristics, using the activation likelihood estimation (ALE) approach. One key finding was evidence of an integrated network of insight-activated regions, including the right medial frontal gyrus, the left inferior frontal gyrus, the left amygdala and the right hippocampus. Importantly, various brain areas were variably recruited during the four stages. Based on the ALE results, the general and stage-specific neural correlates of insight were determined and potential implications are discussed.

Keywords: Brain network; Creative insight; Incubation; Meta-analysis; Neuroimaging.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Creativity*
  • Humans
  • Nerve Net / diagnostic imaging
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Neuroimaging*
  • Thinking / physiology*