Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Working Memory and Insight in the Nine-Dot Problem

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Working Memory and Insight in the Nine-Dot Problem

Article excerpt

In the present article, we examine the contribution of working memory (WM) to solution of the nine-dot problem, a classic insight problem. Prior research has generally demonstrated a limited role for WM in the solution of insight problems, which are typically assumed to be solved without conscious planning. However, MacGregor, Ormerod, and Chronicle (2001) proposed an information-processing model that solves the nine-dot problem by relying on a visual WM mechanism, which they term lookahead. In the present research, we examine whether performance on the nine-dot problem is indeed predicted by WM capacity. The results indicated that spatial WM capacity predicted the tendency to draw lines outside the configuration of dots and predicted the solution on a hint-aided version of the problem. Furthermore, within those solving the problem, higher spatial WM capacity was also related to faster solutions. The results support the information-processing model and suggest a more essential role for WM and planning in insight problem solving than has previously been acknowledged.

Insight in problem solving has had a long history in psychology, and throughout most of that history, it has been a source of controversy (see Weisberg, 2006, chap. 6). Insight is contrasted with analysis as a mode of solving problems. Among the factors presumed to distinguish these two classes of problems is the degree to which each utilizes working memory (WM): Analytic problems putatively place heavier demands on WM than do insight problems. In a number of recent studies, the role of WM in the solution of a range of insight problems has been examined (Ash & Wiley, 2006; Fleck, 2008; Gilhooly & Murphy, 2005; Lavric, Forstmeier, & Rippon, 2000). Those studies lend some support to the distinction between insight and analysis as modes of problem solving but leave open the specific role that WM plays in the solution of insight problems. For example, both Gilhooly and Murphy (2005) and Ash and Wiley (2006) argued that executive components of WM may contribute to insight problem solving by supporting the allocation of attention but suggested little or no role for domain-specific capacities of WM. Meanwhile, both Lavric et al. (2000) and Fleck (2008) concluded that WM plays no role in insight problem solving.

In the present article, we examine the possible role of WM in another classic insight problem-the nine-dot problem-and show that individual differences in spatial WM capacity predict performance. Motivated by our findings, we later reconsider the extant literature and argue that the evidence points to a more central role for WM in some insight problems than has been previously acknowledged. Together, these findings lead us to question the notion that insight and analytic problems are distinguished by their relative dependence on working memory and, furthermore, to question the value of a sharp dichotomy between insight and analysis as modes of solving problems.

Analysis Versus Insight in Solution of Problems

An example of solving a problem through analysis is a knowledgeable person's solution to a long division problem: The individual knows a set of rules-an algorithm- that will produce the answer. In problems solved through analysis in which there is no familiar algorithm, such as the Towers of Hanoi, the individual may rely on heuristic search of the problem space in order to construct the solution. In each of these cases of solution through analysis, the individual makes more or less steady progress toward solution (Metcalfe & Wiebe, 1987).

In contrast, solving a problem through insight typically requires that one change the way in which the problem is conceptualized, through restructuring of the problem (Weisberg, 1995). Consider the marrying man problem: A man in our town has married 20 women from the town. Bigamy is illegal in our town, and yet the man has broken no law. Explain. Nearly everyone initially interprets the phrase has married 20 women as meaning that the man has been married to them. …

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