Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Easy and Hard Problem Solving

Educating for better problem solving is important for K-12, college and graduate education, business, health, science, the arts, and every discipline. But before getting in to the nitty gritty of 'how', it's also worthwhile to think about two very different types of problem solving - the brain 'easy' and brain 'hard' divisions that have very different timing and characteristics, and should have different preferred educational characteristics.

The brain 'hard' version - is what you might expect from heavy critical thinking: like this picture from the mathematical calculating prodigy: It requires huge areas of cortex, both sides of the brain, and conscious manipulation of lots of facts, relationship and data. It looks like you might expect for a heavy bit of number crunching.

But this is not the only way problems are solved. There is the brain 'easy' way too. With insight-related problem solving, only small areas of brain are activated, and these areas only switch on right before a solution is recognized. The area that lights up is that dreamy area of the right temporal lobe that might access more personal knowledge and experience - or 'autobiographical' memory. It might be that right analogy or metaphor is struck, the pattern is recognized and... Aha! The problem is solved.

The differences in these approaches are important to consider whether we are thinking about fostering the problem solving ability K-12's, software engineers, or corporate executives. Some creativity training approaches are unevenly weighted toward one approach (perhaps reflecting the inventor of the method?), but being facile in both approaches leads to more powerful problem solving.

When People Solve Verbal Problems with Insight
Mental Calculation in a Math Prodigy


  1. A practical application of this study might be, when stymied by a problem in your particular field, to seek a burst of mental stmulation of novelty by introducing yourself to some aspect of a different, unrelated, field. Or several fields in short succession.

    Going further out on a limb, the classic Renaissance man may not have diverse accomplishments because they are creative but are creative because they attempt diverse accomplishments.

  2. A Duoist8:35 PM

    A very interesting post.

    Within a week of Larry Summer's skewering at Harvard, researchers released a study showing a high corelation between female test subjects and logic aptitude...not skills, but aptitude!

    Is it possible that the difference between 'hard' (logical) and 'soft' (intuitive) parts of the brain are y-chromosone or x-chromosone related? There's at least 4,000 years of anecdotal musings that there is a physical difference in the brain which mirrors the physical difference between the sexes: warrior versus nurse, father versus mother, Mars versus Venus, Appolonian versus Dionysian, etc.

  3. Neat thought, Mark. I think it was in Root-Sternberg's Discoverers that interviewed famous 'paradigm-shifters' reported that a great source of creativity was completely changing their discipline. A pattern seemed to emerge for some innovators - changing their field (sometimes radically) every 10 years.

    As for male and female differences in processing and aptitude, there are definite gender-related differences as people are studied in groups, but a lot of overlap existing individually. I don't know what the brain scans would look like for men and women math faculty up for tenure.

    A few years ago there was a flashy fMRI report of how men and women use different brain areas to negotiate their way out of a virtual maze. A subsequent study found some men with the 'women' pattern and some women with the 'men' pattern though. So the differences originally found were really best understood as an averaged trend.

  4. I suggest to read Science Brain and Music in

    paolo manzelli pmanzelli@gmail.com