Here's a very interesting look at brain processes involved in real-time problem solving in the complex Tower of Hanoi problem. In this spatial task, multiple steps (some initially counter-productive) are needed to reach a desired goal. The data provide a fascinating insight into what brain systems must be coordinated to solve complicated problems. The paradigm of the Tower of Hanoi and Grid of Pittsburgh are shown below. For details, check out the paper link at the bottom.
The areas studied were the prefrontal cortex (working memory, classic 'executive function'), the parietal cortex (representation, imagery), and motor cortex.
We added the color coding to make it a bit easier to see what was going on. It was interesting to see that in a task such as this - there was a certain rhythmicity between the events - decisions were made by button pushes, so that thinking and solving alternated with some of the motor cortex activations, though the researchers did feel some motor movements may have correlated with problem when test subjects were trying to visualize (motor imagery) the steps of the problem's solution. It looked as if memory retrieval and representations were closely linked - although memory seemed to be triggering some of the parietal (representational) surges in activity.
A study such as this reinforces the importance of the prefrontal-parietal lobe interactions in complex problem solving. It also suggests that a 'frontal' view of executive function tells only one half of the story. At least in this spatial task, the parietal region had a more specific role than any other in planning and successful decision making.
This emerging role for the parietal lobe is very interesting in the context of some of the kids we see in our clinic. Because the parietal lobe is were sensory pathways from all areas (sight, hearing, touch, position sense) converge, problems in some or several pathways cause an array of sensory regulation problems ('out-of-sync child'). Sometimes the bigger day-to-day dilemma for these kids is not from the sensory problems per se, but from decision making and planning.
Real-Time Problem Solving and fMRI