What is insight?

Insight seems in some shape or form to set us apart from other animals. I would never go as far as to open a sentence with ‘one thing we do that no other animal does’, that seems to be a sure way of introducing a false statement. But as far as the propensity goes, we seem to be miles ahead in terms of insight. And if defined in a particular way, one might just get away with saying that we are alone. Insight is an interesting one. It’s a very abstract concept, even a meta abstract concept – that is to say, an abstract concept about abstractions. But before getting lost down a rabbit hole of concept – let’s think practically why the idea of insight has stood us in such good stead.

Most species are parts of relatively static ecosystems – a system that has reached homeostasis if you would. They have managed to find a balance between food supply, their population and the environment. And as the one element either rises or dips, the others adjusts to that reaching different levels of equilibrium while still maintaining roughly the same system. This does require that every animal plays their part consistently. Wolves must hunt elk as they do, the elk must graze and not become smart with the wolf situation and the grass must not get any ideas about becoming poisonous. And while these changes do happen, they happen over periods of thousands of years. If wolves exponentially increased their hunting ability or worse yet, their sources of food, the equilibrium would fall apart and wolves would (on a small scale) do what we’ve done at a global scale.


Insight seems to have three components to it. It starts with observation – what is happening in the world. A long time ago, this might have been an easy thing to do. When the oceans or any body of water proved to be a problem, we can imagine our ancestors spending a lot of time around the water, wading into it, observing what happens, what it takes to swim and then also looking at the things that seem to effortlessly stay on the water. Ducks, leaves logs and so on. I’m saying it was easy because I have the luxury of retrospect from a very scientific era. Without modern scientific understanding it’s reasonable to ask whether something is pushing the duck out of the water or is the sky pulling it up?’ I still believe that the social sciences are focused on something slightly trickier – we are not observing something out there, something else. We are looking in the mirror. This also raises the question about whether the human mind can truly understand human behaviour?’

To illustrate a technology born of sheer observation we can look at the way Chimpanzees use sticks to fish for termites. It’s highly unlikely that a Chimpanzee observed termite behaviour and then one day walked past a stick to have the penny drop. The reality is that Chimpanzees go about prodding the jungle floor with sticks anyway. It is a statistical certainty that at some point, something with nutritional value would get stuck on the end of a stick, thereby simply creating a motivation to slightly skew something they already did. The difference between insight and simply observing is that if you leave an observation-based technology alone for a thousand years you can come back and it would look loosely the same. Base it on insight and you’d barely recognize it when you see it a decade later.

Patterns and components

Insight is about taking the observation and then understanding the various components and patterns that underpins it. A great example I often use is the simple observation that kids cry when you brush their teeth because they know it is then bedtime. The insight here is in no way to say that kids associate tooth brushing with bedtime – this really is drawing a casual correlation between the observations and is not a useful understanding of the situation. The insight is something that explains the correlation. Kids use adult behaviour as milestones to create structure in their own lives. It’s an infinitely more useful idea and if you are a dental care brand that is genuinely interested in being relevant, the insight gives you a much richer platform.

We get this level of understanding through really looking at what is happening and not simply getting stuck in what we see at face value. What are the structural elements? What can be lifted out and applied elsewhere? What is the logical pattern? If we had to think back to our species breaking through natural barriers we can think about how initially something like water in a puddle, collected in an empty shell or even stored in a root could give birth to the more abstract idea of water storage. The pattern being that the fleeting nature of flowing water can be paused until we need it later. With adequate thinking the idea of ‘storage’ can become the concept of ‘interrupting the natural flow of things’ or simply ‘getting something out of degradation’s way’. The observation that plants store water can evolve into the idea that we can dictate the flow of nature.


At this point – where we understand the reason for the links between our observations we have demonstrated true understanding of a situation. I would go as far as to say that insight is a type of understanding – a type that makes it relevant to a problem at hand. It is that ‘aha’ moment when you realise that your understanding can solve a problem to the point where we are permanently rid of it. I mentioned earlier that understanding that children use adults to structure their lives is closer to an insight but in my opinion it is not yet a complete insight. If the challenge we face is to integrate a infant dental care brand into the lives of families we need to use our understanding to solve this problem. It is far easier to use the understanding as opposed to the simple observation but there is still some work to do. The nurtuting element of dental care (crucial to all parents) happen to be one of these milestones in the day which means your brand plays a key part in enabling parents to structure the children’s lives. This is an insight to work with and when you sit down with a bigger team to discuss positioning or campaign thinking you can now look at long term ideas that will only become irrelevant when either parents don’t care about their children or when children no longer look to adults to structure their lives. And these things are unlikely to change – they are human truths that has evolved over tens of thousands of years and will be with us for tens of thousands to come.

I would like to mention at this point that neither observations or understanding is inferior to insights. These are all different steps in the process. A deep understanding of the technical aspects is what made Wozniak the computer legend he is today. Jobd brought the insight of ‘a bicycle for the mind’ to the table and it made all the difference. If we think in linear terms it’s difficult not to make one superior to the other. But when we think team work – diversity and collaboration – it becomes clear that no matter how good one player is, if there is no one to pass the ball to (or no one to receive it from) the whole game is lost.

In conclusion

The process of insight generation is therefore a very human process and despite what we might think, has been around for as long as people have existed. It’s the simple process of observing something, extrapolating new and useful information from it and using it to solve problems. It’s a system of thinking that’s allowed us to arrive in new, hostile environments and carve out an existence by either observing the risk, each other or the plants and animals that has somehow managed to live there before we arrived. We borrow, adapt and implemented our way across the face of the planet and today it would seem that we are the only risk to ourselves.

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