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Problem Solving

Virtually all cognitive activity resembles problem solving (Simon, 1981). Moment by moment, and over longer time spans, we face problems that need solutions. Problem solving can be described in abstract terms as the task of moving a system from its current State A to a goal State B. Any successful cognitive act (retrieving a memory, perceiving a scene, understanding a passage) can be seen as such a process.

In what sense is all cognition problem solving?

This definition of cognition as problem solving encompasses an incredibly wide range of situations. In visual perception, the problem is to come up with a construction that accurately describes the sensory world. In language comprehension, the problem is to reconstruct the author's intended meaning. In motor activity, the problem is to achieve a goal by executing an action. Any time there is a goal or purpose to an activity, there must be problem-solving within the system to determine how to reach that goal.

In what respects are getting a college degree and interpreting your view of the room similar processes?

Here are two examples of problem solving from very different realms. They are similar processes in that each presents the brain with a "problem" of how to move from State A to State B."

1. Problem: get a college degree. The problem is to figure out how best to complete your college education. The problem is to move yourself from State A (where you are now) to State B (completing your degree requirements) so you can graduate from State U (or wherever you are going to school). This is done in a series of steps: completing basic courses, selecting a major, selecting appropriate higher-level courses in the major, and so on to graduation.

2. Problem: interpret your view of the room after closing your eyes and rolling your head back then opening your eyes again. The problem is to come up with a coherent interpretation of your visual world after performing a disorienting maneuver: closing your eyes and rolling your head back to an odd angle, then opening your eyes. Your brain has to go from State A (opening your eyes and experiencing an unusual visual pattern) to State B (figuring out what you are looking at, getting oriented, perceiving the room).

If you can see how both of these examples are problem solving, then you can understand what Simon (1981) meant in saying all cognition is problem solving.

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Copyright © 2007-2011 Russ Dewey