Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Involvement of Working Memory and Inhibition Functions in the Different Phases of Insight Problem Solving

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

The Involvement of Working Memory and Inhibition Functions in the Different Phases of Insight Problem Solving

Article excerpt

Published online: 21 January 2015

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2015

Abstract In this article, the involvement of working memory capacity and inhibition functions in different phases of insight problem solving is investigated, by employing a method of separating the different phases of insight problem solving directly, on the basis of the subjects' oral reports. Two experiments are described. In Experiment 1, 87 subjects were administered a series of working memory span tasks and inhibition tasks, as well as a verbal insight problem. In Experiment 2,119 subjects were administered the same working memory span tasks and inhibition tasks as in the first experiment, as well as a spatial insight problem. Several conclusions can be drawn from this study. First, the insight problem-solving process can be divided into several relatively independent phases, including an initial searching phase and a restructuring phase. Second, executive functions, as measured by working memory capacity, influence mainly the initial searching phase, rather than the restructuring phase. Third, inhibition functions play important but complex roles in restructuring, and sometimes could influence restructuring in contradictory ways simultaneously. The implications and value of this study are discussed further.

Keywords Insight problem solving . Restructuring . Working memory . Inhibition functions . Phase

Insight problem solving has long concerned many researchers, since Kohler's famous experiments on apes (Kohler, 1925). However, the mechanism underlying insight remains undiscovered. Many investigators believe that insight happens as the result of restructuring,which refers to changing the initial problem representation and forming a new one within which the solution can be found through heuristically guided search processes. There are two conflicting perspectives about the mechanisms of restructuring: One suggests that some automatic and unconscious processes, different from the processes behind analytic problem solving, underlie restructuring (Jung-Beeman et al. 2004; Knoblich et al. 1999; Metcalfe & Wiebe, 1987; Ohlsson, 1992; Öllinger et al. 2006;Schooleretal.1993). The other suggests that the processes underlying restructuring are the same as those underlying analytic problem solving (Chronicle et al. 2004; Fleck & Weisberg, 2004; Gilhooly et al. 2010;Kaplan&Simon,1990; Weisberg & Alba, 1981).

Recently, some researchers have tried to tackle this issue by examining the role of executive functions in insight problem solving. Since executive functions are the crucial predictors in analytic problem solving, evidence about the involvement of executive functions in insight problem solving would provide strong grounds to test different viewpoints on the mechanisms of restructuring. However, the experimental evidence has not been very conclusive. Some investigators have found strong connections between executive functions and insight problem solving, just as in noninsight problem solving (Chein et al. 2010; DeYoung et al. 2008; Gilhooly & Murphy, 2005;Murray & Byrne, 2005). However, others have revealed that executive functions played a weaker, or even no, role in insight problem solving (Ash & Wiley, 2006;Fleck,2008; Gilhooly & Fioratou, 2009;Lavricetal.2000). The inconsistency among the experimental evidence could be due to the complexity of insight problem-solving processes, which might include several different phases.

As early as the 1920s, British scholar Wallas (1926)proposed the famous stage theory of the invention and creation processes. This theory suggests that the process of invention or creation could be divided into four stages: the preparation stage, the incubation stage, the illumination stage, and the verification stage. Seifert, Meyer, Davidson, Patalano, and Yaniv (1994) expanded this theory and suggested that each stage could be divided further, into several substages. For example, the preparation stage might include four substages: facing the problem, explaining the failure, storing the failure indices, and stopping solving the problem. …

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