News Detail

Chantel Prat is featured in this UW News article about puzzle solving. The cited study was co-authored by Andrea Stocco and Lauren Graham.

Can’t solve a riddle? The answer might lie in knowing what doesn’t work

Kim Eckart

UW News

Ever get stuck trying to solve a puzzle?

Say, something like this: (Image in linked article.)

What goes in the last box? (The answer and more puzzles are below.)

You look for a pattern, or a rule, and you just can’t spot it. So you back up and start over.

That’s your brain recognizing that your current strategy isn’t working, and that you need a new way to solve the problem, according to new research from the University of Washington. With the help of about 200 puzzle-takers, a computer model and functional MRI (fMRI) images, researchers have learned more about the processes of reasoning and decision-making, pinpointing the brain pathway that springs into action when problem-solving goes south.

“There are two fundamental ways your brain can steer you through life — toward things that are good, or away from things that aren’t working out,” said Chantel Prat, associate professor of psychology and co-author of the new study, published Feb. 23 in the journal Cognitive Science. “Because these processes are happening beneath the hood, you’re not necessarily aware of how much driving one or the other is doing.”

Using a decision-making task developed by Michael Frank at Brown University, the researchers measured exactly how much “steering” in each person’s brain involved learning to move toward rewarding things as opposed to away from less-rewarding things. Prat and her co-authors were focused on understanding what makes someone good at problem-solving.

Read the entire article here.