Insight Learning (Definition + Examples)

Insight Learning (Definition + Examples)

Have you ever been so focused on a problem that it took stepping away for you to figure it out? You can’t find the solution when you’re looking at all of the moving parts, but once you get distracted with something else - “A-ha!” you have it. 

Humans aren’t the only species that have these “A-ha” moments. Work with other species helped psychologists understand the definition and stages of Insight Learning. This video is going to break down those stages and how you can help to move these “a-ha” moments along. 

What Is Insight Learning? 

Insight learning is a process that leads to a sudden realization regarding a problem. Often, the learner has tried to understand the problem, but steps away before the change in perception occurs. 

Insight learning is often compared to trial-and-error learning, but it’s slightly different. There is less trial-and-error in the insight learning process. Rather than just trying different random solutions, insight learning requires more comprehension. Learners aim to understand the relationships between the pieces of the puzzle. They use patterns, organization, and past knowledge to solve the problem at hand. 

History of Insight Learning 

At the beginning of this video, I mentioned that humans aren’t the only species that learn with insight. Not all species use this process - just the ones that are closest to us intellectually. Insight learning was first discovered not by observing humans, but by observing chimps. 

In the early 1900s, Wolfgang Köhler observed chimpanzees as they solved problems. Köhler’s most famous subject was a chimp named Sultan. The psychologist gave Sultan two sticks of different sizes and placed a banana outside of Sultan’s cage. He watched as Sultan looked at the sticks and tried to reach for the banana with no success. Eventually, Sultan gave up and got distracted. But it was during this time that Köhler noticed Sultan having an “epiphany.” The chimp went back to the sticks, placed one inside of the other, and used this to bring the banana to him. 

Since Köhler’s original observations took place, psychologists looked deeper into the insight process and when you are more likely to experience that “a-ha” moment. There isn’t an exact science to insight learning, but certain theories suggest that some places are better for epiphanies than others. 

Four Stages of Insight Learning 

But how does insight learning happen? Multiple models have been developed, but the four-stage model is the most popular. The four stages of insight learning are preparation, incubation, insight, and verification. 


The process begins as you try to solve the problem. You have the materials and information in front of you and begin to make connections. Although you see the relationships between the materials, things just haven’t “clicked” yet. This is the stage where you start to get frustrated. 


During the incubation period, you “give up” for a short period of time. Although you’ve abandoned the project, your brain is still making connections on an unconscious level. 


When the right connections have been made in your mind, the “a-ha” moment occurs. Eureka! You have an epiphany! 


Now, you just have to make sure that your epiphany is right. You test out your solution and hopefully, it works! This is a great moment in your learning journey. The connections you make solving this problem are likely to help you in the future. 

Where Is the Best Place to Have an Epiphany? 

Insight learning is pretty common, although a study in Australia suggests that only four out of five people have experienced this type of learning. You might not have realized that you were engaging in this process until it was over. Any time you’d had an epiphany in the shower or on a walk around the block, insight learning was taking place. 

But what if you want to have an epiphany? You’re stuck on a problem and you can’t take it anymore. You want to abandon it, but you’re not sure what you should do for this epiphany to take place. Although an “a-ha” moment isn’t guaranteed, studies suggest that the following activities or places can help you solve a tough problem. 

The Three B’s of Creativity 

Creativity and divergent thinking are key to solving problems. And some places encourage creativity more than others. Researchers believe that you can kickstart divergent thinking with the three B’s: bed, bath, and the bus. 


“Bed” might be your best bet out of the three. Studies show that if you get a full night’s sleep, you will be twice as likely to solve a problem than if you stay up all night. This could be due to the REM sleep that you get throughout the night. During REM sleep, your brain is hard at work processing the day’s information and securing connections. Who knows - maybe you’ll dream up the answer to your problems tonight!


The word for “insight” in the Pali language is vipassana. If you have ever been interested in meditation, you might have seen this word before. You can do a vipassana meditation at home, or you can go to a 10-day retreat. These retreats are often silent and are set up to cultivate mind-body awareness. 

You certainly don’t have to sign up for a 10-day silent retreat to solve a problem that is bugging you. (Although, you may have a series of breakthroughs!) Try meditating for 20 minutes at a time. Studies show that this can increase the likelihood of solving a problem. 


How do you feel when you have an epiphany? Good, right? The next time you’re trying to solve a problem, check in with your emotions. You are more likely to experience insight when you’re in a positive mood. Positivity opens your mind and gives your mind more freedom to explore. That exploration may just lead you to your solution. 

Be patient when you’re trying to solve problems. Take breaks when you need to and make sure that you are taking care of yourself. This approach will help you solve problems faster and more efficiently!

How to reference this article:

Theodore. (2020, June). Insight Learning (Definition + Examples). Retrieved from

About the author 


Theodore created PracticalPsychology while in college and has transformed the educational online space of psychology. His goal is to help people improve their lives by understanding how their brains work. 1,700,000 Youtube subscribers and a growing team of psychologists, the dream continues strong!

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