4.7 The Brain & Problem Solving: Areas & Process
Problem Solving: How It Works
The human brain has great capacity to reason out complex issues. We have the ability to make calculations and solve problems, even in situations we have never experienced before. This is one of the capabilities, according to many researchers, that separates humans from animals. But how do we do it? What areas of our brains are involved, and what do they do in order to bring us to a solution?
Make Up Your Mind
Nick and Willa debate where to go for supper. Abigail is making her will, and deciding who to leave her estate to. Hugh needs a new car. Decision-making is problem solving that we all do many times every day. Whether a decision is simple and casual, weighty and momentous, or somewhere in between, the same regions of the brain are activated to do their jobs.
The striatum is one area of the brain crucial to deciding among options. It is part of the basal ganglia, found in the inner core of the brain. The striatum has three sections, and each one seems to work hardest during a specific portion of the decision-making process.
One section activates at the start of the process, as though it is managing the organization of thoughts about the task at hand (Abigail listing her possessions and making an appointment with her attorney). Another part kicks in when the relative merits of each choice are being considered, weighing the pros and cons (Hugh looking over the specs on the cars he is interested in). The third appears to control preparation for actions to be taken once a choice is made (Nick and Willa getting ready to walk to the Greek restaurant they decide on).
Try, but Not Too Hard!
Another area of the brain vital to problem solving is the prefrontal cortex, located toward the front of the brain. For a long time, it was thought that some parts of the prefrontal cortex were only involved in simple thought, while others activated during complex problem solving. However, recent studies have found that while we are doing routine tasks unrelated to our problem, the brain is still engaged with it.
Roxy is a novelist with a big problem. She’s written herself into a corner. Her characters are trapped, and she can’t figure out how to free them. Finally, she throws up her hands. It’s a beautiful day, and she decides to wash her car and forget about the whole thing for a while.
Do you really think she’s forgotten? By now, you know better! If we could put Roxy in an MRI machine, it would show us that while she is changing into her shorts and soaping up her car, her prefrontal cortex, along with other areas of her brain, like the anterior cingulate cortex, are still busy.
Sure enough, while she’s daydreaming about her weekend plans, the solution pops into Roxy’s head, seemingly from out of nowhere! She sees exactly what her heroine the good witch can do to rescue her werewolf sweetheart from the mad scientist. Happily, she finishes cleaning her car windows and hurries back to her desk to finish that chapter.
Flexibility, Creativity, and When to Stop
As we see from Roxy’s predicament, sometimes a complicated problem is best addressed by leaving it alone for a while. She had tried everything she could think of to write her characters out of their dilemma, and maybe that was exactly the problem. Once she freed her mind to brainstorm, to try out new ideas no matter how way-out they may seem, that flexibility sparked an answer.
Researchers have found that gamma waves in the brain are associated with a fixed mindset. When they are high, problem solving is often harder. On the other hand, alpha waves occur when the brain is relaxed. They often appear in situations like Roxy’s, where she has left off consciously concentrating on her problem. Instead of finding the solution to her problem, she discovers the solution finds her!
The anterior cingulate cortex, which we mentioned earlier, assists with problem solving mostly by assessing each potential solution and determining if it is successful or not. It is most active while options are being tested. Once a viable solution is found, its activity lessens, since its job is done.
Pre-Programming the Brain for Good Results
So, how can we set our brains up for better problem solving? One way to foster more alpha brainwaves is said to be through techniques that encourage relaxation. Studies show that a short period of mindful meditation can help people look at problems more clearly. They suggest that when making a decision or when confronted with a problem, we consider the available information, take a deep breath, and take the path best for us at this time.
Several areas of the brain work together to help us solve problems. The striatum, part of the basal ganglia in the inner core of the brain, concentrates on making decisions. The prefrontal cortex near the front of the brain manages complex problem solving, along with other areas, and works even when we are not consciously thinking about our problem. The anterior cingulate cortex assesses potential solutions and determines whether they are successful. Studies show that alpha waves in the brain, associated with relaxation, encourage effective problem solving, while gamma waves, associated with a fixed mindset, limit finding good solutions. Activities like meditation that support calm also support good decision making and problem solving.