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Insight Learning Theory: Definition, Stages, and Examples

Insight learning theory is all about those “lightbulb moments” we experience when we suddenly understand something. Instead of slowly figuring things out through trial and error, insight theory says we can suddenly see the solution to a problem in our minds. 

This theory is super important because it helps us understand how our brains work when we learn and solve problems. It can help teachers find better ways to teach and improve our problem-solving skills and creativity. It’s not just useful in school—insight theory also greatly impacts science, technology, and business.

The four stages of insight learning theory

What Is Insight Learning?

Insight learning is like having a lightbulb moment in your brain. It’s when you suddenly understand something without needing to go through a step-by-step process. Instead of slowly figuring things out by trial and error, insight learning happens in a flash. One moment, you’re stuck, and the next, you have the solution. 

This type of learning is all about those “aha” experiences that feel like magic. The key principles of insight learning involve recognizing patterns, making connections, and restructuring our thoughts. It’s as if our brains suddenly rearrange the pieces of a puzzle, revealing the big picture. So, next time you have a brilliant idea pop into your head out of nowhere, you might just be experiencing insight learning in action!

Three Components of Insight Learning Theory

Insight learning, a concept rooted in psychology, comprises three distinct properties that characterize its unique nature:

1. Sudden Realization

Unlike gradual problem-solving methods, insight learning involves sudden and profound understanding. Individuals may be stuck on a problem for a while, but then, seemingly out of nowhere, the solution becomes clear. This sudden “aha” moment marks the culmination of mental processes that have been working behind the scenes to reorganize information and generate a new perspective.

2. Restructuring of Problem-Solving Strategies

Insight learning often involves a restructuring of mental representations or problem-solving strategies. Instead of simply trying different approaches until stumbling upon the correct one, individuals experience a shift in how they perceive and approach the problem. This restructuring allows for a more efficient and direct path to the solution once insight occurs.

3. Aha Moments

A hallmark of insight learning is the experience of “aha” moments. These moments are characterized by a sudden sense of clarity and understanding, often accompanied by a feeling of satisfaction or excitement. It’s as if a mental lightbulb turns on, illuminating the solution to a previously perplexing problem. 

These moments of insight can be deeply rewarding and serve as powerful motivators for further learning and problem-solving endeavors.

Four Stages of Insight Learning Theory

Insight learning unfolds in a series of distinct stages, each contributing to the journey from problem recognition to the sudden realization of a solution. These stages are as follows:

1. Problem Recognition

The first stage of insight learning involves recognizing and defining the problem at hand. This may entail identifying obstacles, discrepancies, or gaps in understanding that need to be addressed. Problem recognition sets the stage for the subsequent stages of insight learning by framing the problem and guiding the individual’s cognitive processes toward finding a solution.

2. Incubation

After recognizing the problem, individuals often enter a period of incubation where the mind continues to work on the problem unconsciously. During this stage, the brain engages in background processing, making connections, and reorganizing information without the individual’s conscious awareness. 

While it may seem like a period of inactivity on the surface, incubation is a crucial phase where ideas gestate, and creative solutions take shape beneath the surface of conscious thought.

3. Illumination

The illumination stage marks the sudden emergence of insight or understanding. It is characterized by a moment of clarity and realization, where the solution to the problem becomes apparent in a flash of insight. 

This “aha” moment often feels spontaneous and surprising, as if the solution has been waiting just below the surface of conscious awareness to be revealed. Illumination is the culmination of the cognitive processes initiated during problem recognition and incubation, resulting in a breakthrough in understanding.

4. Verification

Following the illumination stage, individuals verify the validity and feasibility of their insights by testing the proposed solution. This may involve applying the solution in practice, checking it against existing knowledge or expertise, or seeking feedback from others. 

Verification serves to confirm the efficacy of the newfound understanding and ensure its practical applicability in solving the problem at hand. It also provides an opportunity to refine and iterate on the solution based on real-world feedback and experience.

Famous Examples of Insight Learning

Examples of insight learning can be observed in various contexts, ranging from everyday problem-solving to scientific discoveries and creative breakthroughs. Some well-known examples of how insight learning theory works include the following:

Archimedes’ Principle

According to legend, the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes experienced a moment of insight while taking a bath. He noticed that the water level rose as he immersed his body, leading him to realize that the volume of water displaced was equal to the volume of the submerged object. This insight led to the formulation of Archimedes’ principle, a fundamental concept in fluid mechanics.

Köhler’s Chimpanzee Experiments

In Wolfgang Köhler’s experiments with chimpanzees on Tenerife in the 1920s, the primates demonstrated insight learning in solving novel problems. One famous example involved a chimpanzee named Sultan, who used sticks to reach bananas placed outside his cage. After unsuccessful attempts at using a single stick, Sultan suddenly combined two sticks to create a longer tool, demonstrating insight into the problem and the ability to use tools creatively.

Eureka Moments in Science

Many scientific discoveries are the result of insight learning. For instance, the famed naturalist Charles Darwin had many eureka moments where he gained sudden insights that led to the formation of his influential theories.

Everyday Examples of Insight Learning Theory

You can probably think of some good examples of the role that insight learning theory plays in your everyday life. A few common real-life examples include:

  • Finding a lost item: You might spend a lot of time searching for a lost item, like your keys or phone, but suddenly remember exactly where you left them when you’re doing something completely unrelated. This sudden recollection is an example of insight learning.
  • Untangling knots: When trying to untangle a particularly tricky knot, you might struggle with it for a while without making progress. Then, suddenly, you realize a new approach or see a pattern that helps you quickly unravel the knot.
  • Cooking improvisation: If you’re cooking and run out of a particular ingredient, you might suddenly come up with a creative substitution or alteration to the recipe that works surprisingly well. This moment of improvisation demonstrates insight learning in action.
  • Solving riddles or brain teasers: You might initially be stumped when trying to solve a riddle or a brain teaser. However, after some time pondering the problem, you suddenly grasp the solution in a moment of insight.
  • Learning a new skill: Learning to ride a bike or play a musical instrument often involves moments of insight. You might struggle with a certain technique or concept but then suddenly “get it” and experience a significant improvement in your performance.
  • Navigating a maze: While navigating through a maze, you might encounter dead ends and wrong turns. However, after some exploration, you suddenly realize the correct path to take and reach the exit efficiently.
  • Remembering information: When studying for a test, you might find yourself unable to recall a particular piece of information. Then, when you least expect it, the answer suddenly comes to you in a moment of insight.

These everyday examples illustrate how insight learning is a common and natural part of problem-solving and learning in our daily lives.

Exploring the Uses of Insight Learning

Insight learning isn’t an interesting explanation for how we suddenly come up with a solution to a problem—it also has many practical applications. Here are just a few ways that people can use insight learning in real life:


Insight learning helps us solve all sorts of problems, from finding lost items to untangling knots. When we’re stuck, our brains might suddenly come up with a genius idea or a new approach that saves the day. It’s like having a mental superhero swoop in to rescue us when we least expect it!


Ever had a brilliant idea pop into your head out of nowhere? That’s insight learning at work! Whether you’re writing a story, composing music, or designing something new, insight can spark creativity and help you come up with fresh, innovative ideas.

Learning New Skills

Learning isn’t always about memorizing facts or following step-by-step instructions. Sometimes, it’s about having those “aha” moments that make everything click into place. Insight learning can help us grasp tricky concepts, master difficult skills, and become better learners overall.


Insight learning isn’t just for individuals—it’s also crucial for innovation and progress in society. Scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs rely on insight to make groundbreaking discoveries and develop new technologies that improve our lives. Who knows? The next big invention could start with someone having a brilliant idea in the shower!

Overcoming Challenges

Life is full of challenges, but insight learning can help us tackle them with confidence. Whether it’s navigating a maze, solving a puzzle, or facing a tough decision, insight can provide the clarity and creativity we need to overcome obstacles and achieve our goals.

The next time you’re feeling stuck or uninspired, remember: the solution might be just one “aha” moment away!

Alternatives to Insight Learning Theory

While insight learning theory emphasizes sudden understanding and restructuring of problem-solving strategies, several alternative theories offer different perspectives on how learning and problem-solving occur. Here are some of the key alternative theories:


Behaviorism is a theory that focuses on observable, overt behaviors and the external factors that influence them. According to behaviorists like B.F. Skinner, learning is a result of conditioning, where behaviors are reinforced or punished based on their consequences. 

In contrast to insight learning theory, behaviorism suggests that learning occurs gradually through repeated associations between stimuli and responses rather than sudden insights or realizations.

Cognitive Learning Theory

Cognitive learning theory, influenced by psychologists such as Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, emphasizes the role of mental processes in learning. This theory suggests that individuals actively construct knowledge and understanding through processes like perception, memory, and problem-solving. 

Cognitive learning theory acknowledges the importance of insight and problem-solving strategies but places greater emphasis on cognitive structures and processes underlying learning.

Gestalt Psychology

Gestalt psychology, which influenced insight learning theory, proposes that learning and problem-solving involve the organization of perceptions into meaningful wholes or “gestalts.” 

Gestalt psychologists like Max Wertheimer emphasized the role of insight and restructuring in problem-solving, but their theories also consider other factors, such as perceptual organization, pattern recognition, and the influence of context.

Information Processing Theory

Information processing theory views the mind as a computer-like system that processes information through various stages, including input, processing, storage, and output. This theory emphasizes the role of attention, memory, and problem-solving strategies in learning and problem-solving. 

While insight learning theory focuses on sudden insights and restructuring, information processing theory considers how individuals encode, manipulate, and retrieve information to solve problems.

Related reading:


Kizilirmak, J. M., Fischer, L., Krause, J., Soch, J., Richter, A., & Schott, B. H. (2021). Learning by insight-like sudden comprehension as a potential strategy to improve memory encoding in older adultsFrontiers in Aging Neuroscience13, 661346.

Lind, J., Enquist, M. (2012). Insight learning and shaping. In: Seel, N.M. (eds) Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. Springer, Boston, MA.

Osuna-Mascaró, A. J., & Auersperg, A. M. I. (2021). Current understanding of the “insight” phenomenon across disciplines. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 791398.

Salmon-Mordekovich, N., & Leikin, M. (2023). Insight problem solving is not that special, but business is not quite ‘as usual’: typical versus exceptional problem-solving strategiesPsychological Research87(6), 1995–2009.