Researchers at Ohio State University have figured out when people are about to have an epiphany, and it’s all in the eyes.
Epiphany learning is characterized as that sudden and dramatic insight when the proverbial light bulb goes on above your head. In contrast to reinforcement learning, which involves the gradual adjustment of behaviour in response to prior outcomes, epiphany learning seems to occur all at once, apart from outside stimulus.
The regularity of reinforcement learning has made it a prime topic of study for economists and behavioural scientists, but not so much epiphany learning, which has received relatively little investigation into the cognitive and physiological mechanisms underlying the flash of insight.
But as elusive as they made be, epiphanies can be observed — and predicted.
Researchers with the Departments of Economics and Psychology at Ohio State University in Columbus had 59 study participants play a brief computer game that, once figured out, had a winning strategy every time.
The game called for two players to each choose a number between zero and ten, spread out like a rotary telephone dial on the screen, with the aim to pick the number that is closest to the average of the two players’ numbers multiplied by 0.9. It turns out that the smaller of the two numbers is always going to be the winner, with zero winning every time.
In prior studies involving the game, it has been found that most people fail to realize right away that zero is the best option but that over time, some of them pick it up and commit to playing zero every time.
Researchers had participants play the game 30 times in a row, with the results showing that at some time during play, about 42 per cent of players committed to zero, 37 per cent committed to another number (showing that they hadn’t figured it out) and 20 per cent never committed to a number.
Researchers tracked the players’ eye movements during play and found that the Aha! moment was distinctly recognizable. “There’s a sudden change in their behaviour,” says Ian Krajbich, assistant professor of psychology and economics at Ohio State and study co-author, in a press release. “They are choosing other numbers and then all of a sudden they switch to choosing only zero,” Krajbich said. “That’s a hallmark of epiphany learning.”
The researchers found that the participants’ pupils dilated at the moment of epiphany, showing that the game players were playing close attention. Even more interesting was the players’ behaviour immediately prior to their choosing to play zero. The eye-tracking showed them looking more often at zero and other low numbers more than participants who never figured out the winning strategy.
“We don’t see the epiphany in their choice of numbers, but we see it in their eyes,” said study co-author James Wei Chen, doctoral student in economics at Ohio State. “Their attention is drawn to zero and they start testing it more and more.”
The researchers concluded that what separated the epiphany players from the non-epiphany ones was the “unconscious accumulation of evidence”: rather than simply reacting to their opponents’ choices and the results of the previous game, epiphany learners took the time to process the information and voila! The winning strategy emerged.
“They were showing signs of learning before they made the commitment to zero,” Krajbich said. “We didn’t see the same results for others.”
The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.