What Your Brain Looks Like When It Solves a Math Problem

Solving a hairy math problem might send a shudder of exultation along your spinal cord. But scientists have historically struggled to deconstruct the exact mental alchemy that occurs when the brain successfully leaps the gap from “Say what?” to “Aha!”
Now, using an innovative combination of brain-imaging analyses, researchers have captured four fleeting stages of creative thinking in math. In a paper published in Psychological Science, a team led by John R. Anderson, a professor of psychology and computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, demonstrated a method for reconstructing how the brain moves from understanding a problem to solving it, including the time the brain spends in each stage.

The imaging analysis found four stages in all: encoding (downloading), planning (strategizing), solving (performing the math), and responding (typing out an answer).
“I’m very happy with the way the study worked out, and I think this precision is about the limit of what we can do” with the brain imaging tools available, said Dr. Anderson, who wrote the report with Aryn A. Pyke and Jon M. Fincham, both also at Carnegie Mellon.
To capture these quicksilver mental operations, the team first taught 80 men and women how to interpret a set of math symbols and equations they had not seen before. The underlying math itself wasn’t difficult, mostly addition and subtraction, but manipulating the newly learned symbols required some thinking. The research team could vary the problems to burden specific stages of the thinking process — some were hard to encode, for instance, while others extended the length of the planning stage.The scientists used two techniques of M.R.I. data analysis to sort through what the participants’ brains were doing. One technique tracked the neural firing patterns during the solving of each problem; the other identified significant shifts from one kind of mental state to another. The subjects solved 88 problems each, and the research team analyzed the imaging data from those solved successfully.
The analysis found four separate stages that, depending on the problem, varied in length by a second or more. For instance, planning took up more time than the other stages when a clever workaround was required. The same stages are likely applicable to solving many creative problems, not just in math. But knowing how they play out in the brain should help in designing curriculums, especially in mathematics, the paper suggests.
“We didn’t know exactly what students were doing when they solved problems,” said Dr. Anderson, whose lab designs math instruction software. “Having a clearer understanding of that will help us develop better instruction; I think that’s the first place this work will have some impact.”
Source:: nytimes
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