Meta-analytic evidence for a core problem solving network across multiple representational domains

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2018 Sep;92:318-337. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2018.06.009. Epub 2018 Jun 23.


Problem solving is a complex skill engaging multi-stepped reasoning processes to find unknown solutions. The breadth of real-world contexts requiring problem solving is mirrored by a similarly broad, yet unfocused neuroimaging literature, and the domain-general or context-specific brain networks associated with problem solving are not well understood. To more fully characterize those brain networks, we performed activation likelihood estimation meta-analysis on 280 neuroimaging problem solving experiments reporting 3166 foci from 1919 individuals across 131 papers. The general map of problem solving revealed broad fronto-cingulo-parietal convergence, regions similarly identified when considering separate mathematical, verbal, and visuospatial problem solving domain-specific analyses. Conjunction analysis revealed a common network supporting problem solving across diverse contexts, and difference maps distinguished functionally-selective sub-networks specific to task type. Our results suggest cooperation between representationally specialized sub-network and whole-brain systems provide a neural basis for problem solving, with the core network contributing general purpose resources to perform cognitive operations and manage problem demand. Further characterization of cross-network dynamics could inform neuroeducational studies on problem solving skill development.

Keywords: Activation likelihood estimation (ALE); Cognitive control; Domain-generality; Domain-specificity; Functional neuroimaging; Meta-analysis; Problem solving; Reasoning.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Humans
  • Neural Pathways / diagnostic imaging
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*
  • Neuroimaging
  • Problem Solving / physiology*