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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

January 2017, Vol. 29, No. 1, Pages 114-124
(doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_01027)
© 2016 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Frontal Cortex Supports the Early Structuring of Multiple Solution Steps in Symbolic Problem-solving
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Abstract problem-solving relies on a sequence of cognitive steps involving phases of task encoding, the structuring of solution steps, and their execution. On the neural level, metabolic neuroimaging studies have associated a frontal-parietal network with various aspects of executive control during numerical and nonnumerical problem-solving. We used EEG–MEG to assess whether frontal cortex contributes specifically to the early structuring of multiple solution steps. Basic multiplication (“3 × 4” vs. “3 × 24”) was compared with an arithmetic sequence rule (“first add the two digits, then multiply the sum with the smaller digit”) on two complexity levels. This allowed dissociating demands of early solution step structuring from early task encoding demands. Structuring demands were high for conditions that required multiple steps, that is, complex multiplication and the two arithmetic sequence conditions, but low for easy multiplication that mostly relied on direct memory retrieval. Increased right frontal activation in time windows between 300 and 450 msec was observed only for conditions that required multiple solution steps. General task encoding demands, operationalized by problem size (one-digit vs. two-digit numbers), did not predict these early frontal effects. In contrast, parietal effects occurred as a function of problem size irrespectively of structuring demands in early phases of task encoding between 100 and 300 msec. We here propose that frontal cortex subserves domain-general processes of problem-solving, such as the structuring of multiple solution steps, whereas parietal cortex supports number-specific early encoding processes that vary as a function of problem size.