Does mindfulness aid insight problem solving? New study suggest so

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A new study (Ostafin, B. D., & Kassman, K. T, In Press) examined whether mindfulness meditation could help improve participants’ insight problem solving skills. Their hypothesis was that mindfulness might aid in solving of problems that require creative, nonhabitual responses.

Insight problems

These are problems that typically generate an eureka effect (a
sudden “aha!” outburst) when they get solved. They often require the
testee to think outside the box in order to solve the problem. A classic
insight problem is The Nine Dot Problem, where you are asked to
connect 9 dots using only 4 straight lines
Does mindfulness help you solve insight problems like the 9 nine dots

Non-insight problems

These problems require more incremental problem solving skills and can
often be aided by past experiences. Tests like the Tower of Hanoi,
which is commonly used by psychologist, would be considered a
non-insight problem or puzzle.
Does mindfulness help you solve non-insight problems like the tower
of hanoi?

Research summary

The researches performed 2 experiments, to answer the question of
whether mindfulness aided the test subjects in solving insight problems.

Experiment 1

43 (female) participants were presented with “the prisoner’s rope
problem”, “the antique coin problem” and “the inverted steel pyramid
problem”. A control mechanism were used were every other problem was a
non-insight problem. To measure mindfulness the researches used the
Trait Mindful Awareness scale. They found a positive
correlation between mindful awareness and insight problem
solving r(86) = .25, p = .02, and a nonsignificant
correlation between mindful awareness and non-insight problems.

Experiment 2

48 males were tested using the same procedure as in Experiment 1. But
since we all know that correlation does not imply causationthe
researches added more measures to this experiment to control for
confounders. Mindfulness is known to be correlated with a positive
affect, accordingly they researches used the Positive and Negative
Affect Schedule
to measure trait positive affect. The Self-assessment
was used to assess state positive affect. They also added
randomization to this experiment; participants were now randomized to
either a mindfulness (n = 35) or a control (n = 36) group. The
mindfulness group were administered a 10 minute mindfulness exercise
before answering the measures and before they were directed to the
problems. Likewise the control group had to listen to 10 minutes of a
natural history text. The results of this experiment once again showed
that mindfulness were correlated with better insight problem
solvingbut not with non-insight problems. Even when
controlling for positive affect mindfulness still emerged as a
significant predictor of insight problem solving. The mindfulness group
also demonstrated significant better performance than the control group,
with a moderate effect size (Cohen’s d = .53)


The authors claim that these are the first findings to demonstrate a
direct relation between mindfulness and creativity. However, the
mechanism of change is unknown, but it’s possible that mindfulness aids
in solving insight problems due to their nonverbal nature. The authors
hypothesize that “verbal-conceptual content derived from previous
experience may hinder the solving of problems that require nonhabitual

Risk for bias?

This study leaves a lot to be desired in terms of reporting standards.
For starters there’s no information on how the randomization were
generated or on how the allocation was concealed. Additionally the
authors do not report whether they were blinded to participants’ group
assignment. Another limitation of their study is that the participants
probably weren’t blind to their own group assignment, as the control
group got to listen to a tape about natural history. A more feasible
approach would’ve been to let them listen to some placebo relaxation
tape, and to perform a tests for the success of blinding at posttest.

As an avid practitioner of mindfulness meditation I feel that there is
some face validity to their conclusion, even in the light of the study’s
apparent weaknesses. It would be very interesting to see a randomized
controlled trail with participants who undergo an 8 week structured
mindfulness training compared to either a wait list control or a placebo

B., & Kassman, K. (2012). Stepping out of history: Mindfulness improves
insight problem solving Consciousness
and Cognition
DOI: 10.1016/j.concog.2012.02.014

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