problem solving

New insight into insight, and the role of the amygdala in memory

April, 2011

A new study suggests that one-off learning (that needs no repetition) occurs because the amygdala, center of emotion in the brain, judges the information valuable.

Most memory research has concerned itself with learning over time, but many memories, of course, become fixed in our mind after only one experience. The mechanism by which we acquire knowledge from single events is not well understood, but a new study sheds some light on it.

The study involved participants being presented with images degraded almost beyond recognition. After a few moments, the original image was revealed, generating an “aha!” type moment. Insight is an experience that is frequently remembered well after a single occurrence. Participants repeated the exercise with dozens of different images.

Memory for these images was tested a week later, when participants were again shown the degraded images, and asked to recall details of the actual image.

Around half the images were remembered. But what’s intriguing is that the initial learning experience took place in a brain scanner, and to the researchers’ surprise, one of the highly active areas during the moment of insight was the amygdala. Moreover, high activity in the amygdala predicted that those images would be remembered a week later.

It seems the more we learn about the amygdala, the further its involvement extends. In this case, it’s suggested that the amygdala signals to other parts of the brain that an event is significant. In other words, it gives a value judgment, decreeing whether an event is worthy of being remembered. Presumably the greater the value, the more effort the brain puts into consolidating the information.

It is not thought, from the images used, that those associated with high activity in the amygdala were more ‘emotional’ than the other images.

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Gestures provide a helping hand in problem solving

March, 2011

Another study confirms the value of gestures in helping you solve spatial problems, and suggests that gesturing can help you develop better mental visualization.

In the first of three experiments, 132 students were found to gesture more often when they had difficulties solving mental rotation problems. In the second experiment, 22 students were encouraged to gesture, while 22 were given no such encouragement, and a further 22 were told to sit on their hands to prevent gesturing. Those encouraged to gesture solved more mental rotation problems.

Interestingly, the amount of gesturing decreased with experience with these spatial problems, and when the gesture group were given new spatial visualization problems in which gesturing was prohibited, their performance was still better than that of the other participants. This suggests that the spatial computation supported by gestures becomes internalized. The third experiment increased the range of spatial visualization problems helped by gesture.

The researchers suggest that hand gestures may improve spatial visualization by helping a person keep track of an object in the mind as it is rotated to a new position, and by providing additional feedback and visual cues by simulating how an object would move if the hand were holding it.

Reference: 

[2140] Chu, M., & Kita S.
(2011).  The nature of gestures' beneficial role in spatial problem solving..
Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. 140(1), 102 - 116.

Full text of the article is available at http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/xge-140-1-102.pdf

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Gesturing while talking helps change your thoughts

February, 2011

A study involving problem-solving adds to recent research showing that gestures affect how you think and remember.

In a recent study, volunteers were asked to solve a problem known as the Tower of Hanoi, a game in which you have to move stacked disks from one peg to another. Later, they were asked to explain how they did it (very difficult to do without using your hands.) The volunteers then played the game again. But for some of them, the weight of the disks had secretly reversed, so that the smallest disk was now the heaviest and needed two hands.

People who had used one hand in their gestures when talking about moving the small disk were in trouble when that disk got heavier. They took longer to complete the task than did people who used two hands in their gestures—and the more one-handed gestures they used, the longer they took.

For those who had not been asked to explain their solution (and replayed the game in the interval) were unaffected by the disk weights changing. So even though they had repeated the action with the original weights, they weren’t thrown by the unexpected changes in weights, as those who gestured with one hand were.

The findings add to the evidence that gestures make thought concrete. Related research has indicated that children can come to understand abstract concepts in mathematics and science more readily if they gesture (and perhaps if their teachers gesture).

Reference: 

[2043] Beilock, S. L., & Goldin-Meadow S.
(2010).  Gesture Changes Thought by Grounding It in Action.
Psychological Science. 21(11), 1605 - 1610.

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A positive mood allows your brain to think more creatively

February, 2011

Students who watched a video of a laughing baby or listened to a peppy Mozart piece performed better on a classification task.

A link between positive mood and creativity is supported by a study in which 87 students were put into different moods (using music and video clips) and then given a category learning task to do (classifying sets of pictures with visually complex patterns). There were two category tasks: one involved classification on the basis of a rule that could be verbalized; the other was based on a multi-dimensional pattern that could not easily be verbalized.

Happy volunteers were significantly better at learning the rule to classify the patterns than sad or neutral volunteers. There was no difference between those in a neutral mood and those in a negative mood.

It had been theorized that positive mood might only affect processes that require hypothesis testing and rule selection. The mechanism by which this might occur is through increased dopamine levels in the frontal cortex. Interestingly, however, although there was no difference in performance as a function of mood, analysis based on how closely the subjects’ responses matched an optimal strategy for the task found that, again, positive mood was of significant benefit.

The researchers suggest that this effect of positive mood may be the reason behind people liking to watch funny videos at work — they’re trying to enhance their performance by putting themselves in a good mood.

The music and video clips were rated for their mood-inducing effects. Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik—Allegro” was the highest rated music clip (at an average rating of 6.57 on a 7-point scale), Vivaldi’s Spring was next at 6.14. The most positive video was that of a laughing baby (6.57 again), with Whose Line is it Anyway sound effects scoring close behind (6.43).

Reference: 

[2054] Nadler, R. T., Rabi R., & Minda J P.
(2010).  Better Mood and Better Performance.
Psychological Science. 21(12), 1770 - 1776.

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Two heads are not always better than one

September, 2010

A study of joint decision-making has found collaborative decisions are better, unless one of the individuals is unknowingly working with flawed information.

There’s been a lot of discussion, backed by some evidence, that groups are ‘smarter’ than the individuals in them, that groups make better decisions than individuals. But it is not, of course, as simple as that, and a recent study speaks to the limits of this principle. The study involved pairs of volunteers who were asked to detect a very weak signal that was shown on a computer screen. If they disagreed about when the signal occurred, then they talked together until they agreed on a joint decision. The results showed that joint decisions were better than the decision made by the better-performing individual (as long as they could talk it over).

However, when one of the participants was sometimes surreptitiously made incompetent by being shown a noisy image in which the signal was much more difficult to see, the joint decisions were worse than the decisions of the better performing partner. In other words, working with others can have a detrimental effect if one person is working with flawed information, or is incompetent but doesn't know it. Successful group decision-making and problem-solving requires the participants to be able to accurately judge their level of confidence.

Reference: 

[1801] Bahrami, B., Olsen K., Latham P. E., Roepstorff A., Rees G., & Frith C. D.
(2010).  Optimally Interacting Minds.
Science. 329(5995), 1081 - 1085.

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Good parenting counteracts prenatal stress

February, 2010

A study has found fetuses exposed to elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol may have trouble paying attention or solving problems at 17 months -- but only if they are not securely attached to their mothers.

A study involving 125 women has found the first, direct human evidence that fetuses exposed to elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol may have trouble paying attention or solving problems at 17 months. But more hopefully, the association only occurred among children showing insecure attachment to their mothers, independent of socioeconomic factors. The findings suggest that a stressful prenatal environment may be effectively counteracted by good parental care. The children will be followed up when they turn 6.

Reference: 

[1114] [Anonymous]
(2010).  Maternal Prenatal Cortisol and Infant Cognitive Development: Moderation by Infant-Mother Attachment.
Biological Psychiatry. In Press, Corrected Proof,

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Experiencing different cultures enhances creativity

July, 2010

Being reminded of multicultural experiences helps you become more creative in solving problems.

Three experiments involving students who had lived abroad and those who hadn't found that those who had experienced a different culture demonstrated greater creativity — but only when they first recalled a multicultural learning experience from their life abroad. Specifically, doing so (a) improved idea flexibility (e.g., the ability to solve problems in multiple ways), (b) increased awareness of underlying connections and associations, and (c) helped overcome functional fixedness. The study also demonstrated that it was learning about the underlying meaning or function of behaviors in the multicultural context that was particularly important for facilitating creativity.

Reference: 

[1622] Maddux, W. W., Adam H., & Galinsky A. D.
(2010).  When in Rome ... Learn Why the Romans Do What They Do: How Multicultural Learning Experiences Facilitate Creativity.
Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 731 - 741.

Full text is available free for a limited time at http://psp.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/36/6/731

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Neural evidence for sudden insight

July, 2010

A rat study supports the idea that rule learning occurs in sudden switches in the activity pattern of neurons, that may be experienced as moments of sudden insight.

A rat study has revealed that as the rats slowly learned a new rule, groups of neurons in the medial frontal cortex switched quite abruptly to a new pattern corresponding directly to the shift in behavior, rather than showing signs of gradual transition. Such sudden neural and behavioral transitions may correspond to so- called "a-ha" moments, and support the idea that rule learning is an evidence-based decision process, perhaps accompanied by moments of sudden insight.

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A bare light bulb stimulates insight

March, 2010

Love this one! A series of experiments with college students has revealed that a glowing, bare light bulb can improve your changes of solving an insight problem.

Love this one! A series of experiments with college students has revealed that a glowing, bare light bulb can improve your changes of solving an insight problem. In one experiment, 79 students were given a spatial problem to solve. Before they started, the experimenter, remarking “It’s a little dark in here”, either turned on a lamp with an unshaded 25-watt bulb or an overhead fluorescent light. Twice as many of those exposed to the bare bulb solved the problem in the allotted three minutes (44% vs 22%). In another experiment, 69 students were given four math problems, one of which required insight to solve. Again, those exposed to the lit bulb solved the insight problem more often — but there was no difference on the other problems. A third experiment extended the finding to word problems, and in the fourth, a comparison of the unshaded 25-watt bulb with a shaded 40-watt bulb revealed that the bare, less powerful, bulb was more effective. Isn’t it wonderful that the physical representation of the icon for a bright idea should help us have bright ideas?

Reference: 

[305] Slepian, M. L., Weisbuch M., Rutchick A. M., Newman L. S., & Ambady N.
(2010).  Shedding light on insight: Priming bright ideas.
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 46(4), 696 - 700.

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Does collaboration disrupt retrieval strategies?

Journal Article: 

Basden, B.H., Basden, D.R., Bryner, S. & Thomas, R.L. III (1997). A comparison of group and individual remembering: Does collaboration disrupt retrieval strategies? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, 23, 1176-1189.

  • "Brainstorming" actually produces fewer ideas than would be produced by the same individuals working individually.
  • This is probably because hearing other people's ideas disrupts your own retrieval strategy.
  • This is less likely to occur in a structured situation, where turns are taken.

Despite the popularity of brainstorming as a strategy for producing ideas and new perspectives, it appears that participation in a group actually reduces the number of ideas produced (compared to the number of ideas that would be produced if the participants thought independently)1.

Three possible explanations have been investigated:

  • evaluation apprehension (being worried how other people will evaluate your ideas)
  • social loafing (a self-explanatory and rather cute description)
  • production blocking (the group interaction interferes with your ability to express your ideas, e.g., through interruptions)

It was concluded that this last explanation (production blocking) was the most plausible reason for the reduction in idea production. It was suggested that a person's retrieval strategy is disrupted by hearing another person's ideas.

In the present study, four experiments studied recall of lists of categorized words. Such recall clearly depends on organized retrieval, and all experiments showed that such recall is ordinarily disrupted in collaborative groups. A turn-taking procedure was used within the groups, rather than the free-for-all procedure used in a similar study.

Basden et al suggest that when you're asked to think of ideas, you formulate a particular retrieval strategy. However, as soon as someone else makes a suggestion, there is a tendency to abandon your own retrieval strategy in favor of one more consistent with the other person's. In a group this is particularly difficult since everyone's strategy is likely to be different.

It is worth noting that various variables affect the effectiveness of group remembering, depending on whether the group is structured as a free-for-all, or the group members take turns in speaking. If turns are taken, waiting time is an important variable. In a free-for-all, the specificity of the suggestions may be important, this being affected by how well the group members know each other. Another study that used a free-for-all procedure found that recall was better if the collaborating pair were friends2. They argued that a friend is more likely to provide retrieval cues that are specific to the target information. However, if turns are being taken, such social factors may be less important.

References

1. Diehl, M. & Stroebe, W. 1987. Productivity loss in brainstorming groups: Toward solution of a riddle. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 487-509.

Diehl, M. & Stroebe, W. 1991. Productivity loss in idea-generating groups: Tracking down the blocking effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 392-403.

2. Andersson, J. & Rönnberg, J. 1996. Collaboration and memory: Effects of dyadic retrieval on different memory tasks. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 10, 171-181.

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