What Your Brain Looks Like When It Solves a Math Problem

Jul 28, 2016

By Benedict Carey

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.


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