The Embodied Dynamics of Problem Solving

New structure from multiscale interactions

Authored by: James A. Dixon , Damian G. Kelty-Stephen , Jason Anastas

The Routledge Handbook of Embodied Cognition

Print publication date:  May  2014
Online publication date:  April  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415623612
eBook ISBN: 9781315775845
Adobe ISBN: 9781317688662


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Problem solving has been a rich area for psychology. Nearly all major cognitive phenomena occur in the context of problem solving, including memory search (Hélie and Sun, 2010), analogical mapping (Gick and Holyoak, 1980), reasoning (Thibodeau and Boroditsky, 2011), association (Grabner et al., 2009), abductive inference (Langley, Laird, and Rogers, 2009), and priming (Slepian, Weisbuch, Rutchick, Newman, and Ambady, 2010), as well as many social phenomena, such as group facilitation (Liker and Bókony, 2009) and inhibition (Diehl and Stroebe, 1987) effects. In a sense, problem solving provides us with a microcosm of the key issue for psychology, “How does an organism successfully engage in goal-directed action?” Indeed, if we had a fully worked out theory of problem solving, it would provide a foundation on which to build theories of cognition. Currently, however, psychology and cognitive science place little emphasis on problem solving as a major area in the field, although posing problems to organisms, typically humans, is the stock-in-trade of experimental psychologists. Most studies in psychology pose a problem to their participants, in the form of task instructions and constraints, with the hope that participants will solve the problem using the processes the researcher wishes to study. Missing from current practice is a theory (or even a reasonable hypothesis) about how an organism could configure itself into some novel spatio-temporal structure in a way that accomplishes a novel task. Of course, we recognize that experimental tasks might be considered graded in terms of their novelty at a particular moment in time. For example, recalling a list of words might be analogous to recalling items on a shopping list and thus weakly novel. Naming the color of ink in which words are written, while trying not to read the words (the classic “Stroop” task), might be considered somewhat more strongly novel. At the far end of this continuum, might be tasks that are explicitly intended to require an innovative solution, such as the mutilated checkerboard problem (Kaplan and Simon, 1990) or traveling salesman problem (Applegate, Bixby, Chvatal, and Cook, 2011).

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