Abstract for Kingston meeting on Distributed Cognition and Problem Solving, July 15-16,2010.
Creative problem solving, incubation and the internalist/externalist debate.
Ken Gilhooly, School of Psychology, University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield AL10 9AB, England, UK.
Traditional cognitive psychology approaches to problem solving aim to explain how people solve problems in terms of transformations to internal representations of problems. Typically problem states are seen as represented by symbol structures in a working memory system which are subject to goal driven transformations by rules. These transformations yield a search through a problem space from starting state to goal state. This approach, which one might call “good old fashioned cognitive psychology” (GOFCOP?), derives very strongly from “good old fashioned artificial intelligence”, sometimes known as GOFAI. Although Herbert Simon, a founding figure of both GOFAI and GOFCOP, stressed the intrinsic roles of both the internal organisation of problem solving systems and the structure of the environment in which the system found itself, and how these components interact (eg through the ant on the beach case), the traditional focus has been on the internal side of the story. This leads to a caricature of the traditional approach as completely internalist. I suppose it is probably true, in my case, anyway, that I think the interesting goings on are internal, but it cannot be ignored that the internal processes must be very affected by the external situation.
Representational enrichment: the way tasks are presented can strongly affect the nature of the representations that are formed internally. For example, in a study of divergent thinking we found that more novel uses for familiar objects were produced when participants were presented with the actual object as against a photograph or the verbal label of the object. These 3 conditions can be expected to produce more detailed representations of the object for internal manipulation which would highlight different cues and different uses. The actual object condition is likely to be especially useful when the object itself can be manipulated to yield unusual perspectives. Actual manipulation opens up more prospects for serendipity as Fioratou has noted in studies of real v. paper versions of the cheap necklace problem. Ours account draws on a previous “internalist” analysis based on think aloud records of people generating uses from the verbal labels only. It may be noted that imagery representations are often generated as a basis for divergent production of uses.
Working memory support: In a study of age effects in planning and solving in Tower tasks in older and younger participants, we found marked age differences in purely mental planning measures (such as think ahead depth, planning errors) but no age differences in actual solving performance. It seems that the older participants reduced WM capacity severely curtailed mental planning (lookahead depth) but actually moving the discs gave an external support for WM which thus became less important.
Finally, a challenge for non-internalism: can incubation effects (benefits from setting problem aside and returning after a while ) be other than based on internal processes (beneficial forgetting, attentional shift or unconscious work)?