An Insight on Qual Analysis: from David Brooks’s “The Social Animal”

On my recent visit to the US I finally got around to buying The Social Animal (Random House, 2011) – subtitled The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement – by New York Times writer David Brooks.

David Brooks
David Brooks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m reading it at the moment. It’s full of interesting stuff about what makes us who we are and how we think. There’s a great little passage about what goes to make an insight, which as a qual researcher I found very familiar.

I like his description (on page 95 of my edition) of the moment of making your breakthrough after churning the data over in your head seemingly without an opening. He narrates the process by talking about a fictional student, Harold, who has to put together an essay (which happens to be about Ancient Greek heroism):

He felt an intense and instantaneous burst of ecstasy … Patterns that had not fit [sic] together suddenly felt as if they did. It was a sensation more than a thought, a feeling of almost religious contact. As Robert Burton wrote in his book On Being Certain, “Feelings of knowingness, correctness, conviction and certainty aren’t deliberate conclusions and conscious choices. They are mental sensations that happen to us.”

What does happen then, in the brain?

If scientists had his brain wired up at this moment, they would have noticed a jump in the alpha waves emanating from the right hemisphere … There is a burst of activity in the right temporal lobe, just above the right ear. This is an area, Jung-Beeman and Kounios argue, that draws together pieces of information from wildly different areas of the brain.

So this moment of insight, when confusing things start to make sense, is about disparate information coming together in some way in the brain, rather than for example, some linear process such as following purely deductive reasoning.

What is even more interesting for me is the way Brooks describes the process that leads to this point of break-through in sense-making. Because, as every qual researcher knows, you have to digest the material first. Here’s what he says happens (Ms Taylor is Harold’s teacher):

Ms. Taylor had guided Harold through a method that had him surfing in and out of his unconscious, getting the conscious and unconscious processes to work together – first mastering core knowledge, then letting that knowledge marinate playfully in his mind, then willfully trying to impose order on it, then allowing the mind to consolidate and merge the data, then returning and returning until some magical insight popped into his consciousness, and then riding that insight to a finished product. The process was not easy, but each ounce of effort and each moment of frustration and struggle pushed the internal construction project another step. By the end, he was seeing the world around him in a new way. There was, as the mathematician Henri Poincaré observed, “an unsuspected kinship … between facts, long known, but wrongly believed to be strangers to one another.”

It’s a great description of the qualitative research analysis process. I hope this is yet more evidence of why doing analysis properly – over days, not hours – really is what makes for good thinking. In qual research, it’s kind of the point of doing the research in the first place.

Happy to say, I have ample time for analysis on my current project, which is on online shopping. In fact, time now to go off and master some more of the core knowledge …

 

Published by Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.

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