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 manikin 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 response”.

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 control.

Ostafin, 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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