How do we gain insights

Can you solve the nine dot puzzle? You need to link all the nine dots using four straight lines without lifting the pen.


Here is the solution for the puzzle. Most of us cannot solve the puzzle. Why? We assumed that we are supposed to stay within the borders and this became the barrier to solve the puzzle. In order to solve, you need to break this assumption.

Several companies ask these kinds of puzzles in interviews to test if candidates can come up with an insight to solve the puzzle. But there are few problems with these kinds of puzzles.

  1. There are several ways we gain insights. Solving puzzles like these makes use of only one kind of an insight.
  2. Our work experience plays a huge role in gaining insights and these puzzles does not give any importance to it.

Recently I read the book Seeing What Others Don’t written by Gary Klein. Klein is a psychologist who studies how people gain insights. In this book he writes about his collection of 120 real stories were people came up with novel insights which lead to discoveries like natural selectionpenicillin, aids and cholera.

He sorted out these stories into five different strategies for gaining insights. They are connections, coincidences, curiosities, contradictions, and creative desperation. Let us go over each of them in detail.

1. Connections

The person who uses connections strategy gets a new piece of information. He combines this new information with what he already knows to produce a novel idea.

Charles Darwin followed the connection path in coming up his theory of evolution driven by natural selection. Darwin was twenty-two years old when he went on the voyage of HMS Beagle to the South American coast. The voyage lasted for 5 years from 1831 to 1836.

In the Galapagos Islands Darwin found mockingbirds that differed from one island to the next. Upon his return to England, Darwin wondered what drove the variations in species he had seen on his voyage. He know that farmers and pigeon breeders could deliberately cultivate favorable variations. Why would that occur in nature?

In September 1838, Darwin read An Essay on the Principle of Population by the Reverend Thomas Robert Malathus on population growth and the competition for resources.

Malthus’s essay, written forty years earlier, claimed that populations grow until they exceed the food supply and then the members of the population compete with each other. Darwin immediately saw how this could explain the variations in species he had observed. In the competition for resources, any random variation that had created an advantage would be selected and others would lose out.  The species members with the competitive advantage would be more likely to survive and breed and transfer their traits to offspring. Unfavorable variations would be lost.  Darwin saw that nature was doing this automatically what farmers had been doing deliberately – selecting the best traits and favoring their continuation.

Darwin connected the idea of Malthus’s competition for resources with what he already knew about variations of species to come up with an insight for natural selection.

2. Coincidences

The person who uses coincidence strategy observes several events by chance that seems to be related to each other. Upon investigating further he might discover a pattern which could lead to an insight.

Michael S. Gottlieb is an American physician and immunologist. In 1981 he identified the new disease called as AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). He did not identify this when he noticed the symptoms in the first patient.

Michael Gottlieb encountered a second and then a third patient with a compromised immune system, he might have dismissed it. Instead he became suspicious. Something was going on, something he didn’t understand, and he needed to monitor it more carefully. Gottlieb didn’t believe his patients had anything to do with each other. But the coincidence in their symptoms seemed important. And the men were all gay. Was there any significance in that? Quickly, the coincidence turned into a pattern, the deadly pattern of AIDS.

3. Curiosities

The person who uses curiosity strategy observes a single event that would provoke his curiosity. He would ask “What’s going on here?” and this would lead to an insight.

In 1928, Alexander Fleming was growing colonies of staphylococcus bacteria in petri dishes. He went on vacation for a month. When he returned, he found that one of the petri dishes got contaminated with a mold. All the staphylococcus bacteria that was in the vicinity of the mold died. Others that were not closer to the mold were growing normally.

Fleming wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary, but when he spotted the unusual pattern in one of the petri dishes, he said, “That’s funny.” Fleming cultured the mold and found that it contained an infection-fighting substance – Fleming originally called it “mould juice” – that killed Staphylococcus and other bacteria. Further investigation led to the discovery of penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic.

4. Contradictions

The person who uses contradiction strategy notices an anomaly in the current story. Their reaction will be “No way!” and this will make them to look for actual reasons and this would lead to an insight.

Cholera is a deadly epidemic caused by microbes. The microbes cause diarrhea and vomiting that rapidly dehydrate their victims, quickly killing them. It first appeared in Britain in 1831. The first epidemic ended in 1833 and it killed more than 20,000 people. The next epidemic broke out in 1848 – 1849 killing another 50,000 people.

During that time everyone believed in miasma theory. It tells that cholera is spread by bad air and disgusting smells created by unsanitary conditions. John snow a medical doctor did not believe in the miasma theory. He found few contradictions with the miasma theory.

  1. A sailor died of cholera in a lodging house. Few days later another person checked into the same room and contacted cholera. If cholera is caused by air then why didn’t other people in the lodging house get sick?
  2. As a physician he expected cholera victims to have lung damage if it is caused by inhaling bad air. But all the victims lungs were normal. Instead all of them had damage in their digestive systems.

Upon further investigation he discovered that cholera is caused by drinking contaminated water.

5. Creative Desperation

The person who uses creative desperation should find a way out of a trap that seems unescapable. The trap is caused because of the usual assumptions and they will not work. The way out is to discard it.

Nine dot puzzle makes use of creative desperation.

In May 2003, Aron Ralston, an American mountain climber, was hiking through some canyons in Utah. He fell into a crevice and his right arm became pinned by a boulder. He was stuck there for over five days. This real incident was made into a movie 127 Hours.

At first, Ralston tried to use a small pocketknife to carve away the rock and free his arm. The rock was too big to be carved and in the process he dulled the blade of his pocketknife.  After few days he accidentally cut his thumb of his trapped arm and did not feel any pain. Due to lack of blood circulation the trapped part of his hand died. He realized that if he focused on saving his hand he would die. Instead he shifted his focus to amputate his hand. This insight came out of creative desperation to survive.

As soon as Ralston shifted his goal from freeing his healthy arm to freeing himself from his dead arm, he discovered that the boulder was no longer his enemy. It was now his friend. The boulder enabled him to escape by proving the solid leverage he need to break the bones in his arm.

Triple Path Model

Klein categorized the five different strategies into a model called as Triple Path Model. He made connections, coincidence and curiosity into one category called as Connection. He was able group all the insights from 120 stories into this model.


Seeing What Others Don’t is a terrific read and it is worth your time.