Every now and then, we all experience a “delay” in understanding something, usually a new concept. This delay is just a temporary blockage that inhibits a complete grasp of a new idea. The delay is invariably short-lived and we soon find ourselves experiencing a sudden surge of understanding about the same idea that just a few days ago, or a few weeks ago, we had little clue about.
The thinking chimpanzee
Psychologists call this the “aha!” phenomenon. It was experimentally discovered by a German-American psychologist named Wolfgang Kohler during the early 20th century. In his experiment with a chimpanzee called Sultan, Kohler observed and deduced that animals do not learn everything through mere trial-and-error processes, or stimulus-response associations, as suggested by behavioral psychologists. He argued that animals do solve problems by understanding.
When Sultan was placed in a cage outside of which lay a few bananas, he tried to reach out and grab the fruit. Since the experimenter deliberately placed the bananas out of Sultan’s reach, the chimp had a difficult time getting his meal. The experimenter had purposely placed a few tools in and around the cage; things that do not have obvious connection to each other. After trying a variety of failed stunts, Sultan suddenly picks up a little stick, goes to the bars outside of which lay a long stick; scratches the long stick with the little one until the long stick pushes the fruit closer toward the cage. Yes, Sultan was successful in obtaining his bananas because he solved the problem by understanding the complete nature of the situation.
Ever since, humans have discovered tons of other things that chimpanzees do that require understanding instead of mere random trial-and-error moves.
Decoding the “aha!” effect
Perhaps knowing the true nature of learning as the brain does it will help us gain a better picture of why the “aha!” experience is common in humans and great apes. First and foremost, we all know that the brain is a complex organ. It contains millions of neurons that extend themselves through dendrites and axon terminals that are constantly connecting or disconnecting from each other; growing or shrinking; and at all times, transmitting electrical signals in the form of neurotransmitters, making up the most fascinating signals-relay system in the entire universe.
However, the quality of memory, the speed of sensory and perceptual input-output processing, and the understanding that comes as a result of a host of super-fast-highly sophisticated-neural operations do not necessarily end in the production of an insight about a particular experience, recollection, or idea. Sometimes, the outcome of the whole process is but a partial, very insignificant understanding of something really huge and complex. When such an experiences is encountered, we naturally put it aside and go about our daily activities.
The coming together of the bits and pieces occur at a time and place, and under circumstances that we can never plan or pre-decide. It happens when it happens and we have no control whatsoever as to how it happens. The brain does it all by itself. The neurons, instead of putting aside the bits and pieces of information that we previously couldn’t make sense of, actually work steadily, linking them to the parts of the brain cells that logically connect (though earlier seem impossible to connect), and eventually build a foundation for understanding the idea. This is the “aha!” experience in concrete terms.
Implication for education
At school, students who do not understand a concept or idea the first time they learn it always stand a chance to completely get it in the near future. However, our education system rushes the brain to work unnaturally and causes it to break down, if not under-perform. True education is when students are allowed the privilege of harnessing the natural tendency of the brain to find connections and make sense of things around them.