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What is Insight?

Updated on January 17, 2012

Insight is a term having several meanings in psychology. In personality theory, it denotes self-knowledge an understanding of one's own thoughts, feelings, and behavior. In psychotherapy, it may denote a simple recognition by a neurotic or otherwise maladjusted patient of his mental illness; or it may denote the patient's discovery of the connections between his behavior and memories, feelings, and motives that have been repressed.

Maladjusted people characteristically suffer from an inability to recognize or to understand the dynamics of their own behavior.

One of the tasks of the psychotherapist is to help such people to develop insight. This process involves subjecting the emotions and their relationships to conscious examination, an experience often very painful and frightening to the patient. However, the achievement of insight allows the patient to view his problems more realistically and to think about them more constructively, thus bringing changes in his behavior. The valious schools of psychotherapy hold different theories about the development of insight.

According to Freudian theory, the patient gradually develops insight as he is assisted by the therapist to recover masses of repressed material by means of analyzing free associations, dreams, and expectancies about the self and others. Some non-Freudians hold that the patient can develop insight through instruction by the therapist as he comes to understand the patient's behavior. The American psychologist Carl Rogers maintains that insight occurs when the patient recognizes his feelings as he experiences them during the actual therapeutic session.

The validity of the concept of insight has been questioned for two reasons. First, if a patient disagrees with his therapist's interpretation of his behavior, the therapist may say that the patient "lacks insight," so that agreement with the therapist becomes the sole touchstone of insight. Second, a patient who appears to understand his own behavior but persists in his former symptoms is often said to have "intellectual insight."

However, despite these difficulties, the concept continues to be widely employed.

In learning theory, insight is a sudden perception of useful relationships among elements in the environment. Insight in problem solving generally follows unsuccessful attempts to find a solution. Then, during a subsequent period of physical inactivity, the elements of the situation are perceived in different relationships. If one such relationship promises a solution to the problem, it may be successfully employed at once. Solutions thus achieved by insight can later be generalized to fit new but analogous situations.

The importance of insight in learning has been stressed by Gestalt psychologists in counterbalance to the behavioristic emphasis on stimulus response learning. Probably most learning in the higher vertebrates involves both habitual responses, based on past trials, and insight, based on understanding of the situation.

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