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Project Description

Complex problem solving as a mediator between basic cognition and real-world functioning

Working modelThe core theme of the present research project is the relationship between basic cognitive processes, performance on complex cognitive tasks and real-world functioning. Basic cognitive processes examined in the laboratory are often not easy to relate to real-life situations, both in investigations of healthy individuals and in the clinical context. Research on complex problem solving was originally started to address precisely this gap between “the narrow straits of the laboratory and the deep blue sea of field research” (Funke 2001). In the proposed research, we will use the construct ‘complex problem solving’ as a mediator between basic cognition and real-world functioning, and use a multi-disciplinary approach to characterize the interrelation between these three levels of analysis. To this end, tightly coordinated studies using computational modelling, neuropsychological testing, functional neuroimaging, as well as pharmacological and behavioral interventions will be conducted in the context of narrowly defined, shared behavioral paradigms. 

Complex problems can be characterised by a range of features such as their large number and high connectivity of problem variables, autonomous change of these variables over time and intransparency of the problem situation (Funke 2003). These features are similar to the demands of our everyday life, and therefore make the construct ‘complex problem solving’ a suitable predictor of functional capacity in everyday life. The feature most pertinent for the proposed research is polytely, the presence of multiple, possibly contradictory, goals and subgoals (Doerner 1989). Polytely imposes a cognitive demand to select and prioritise goals and to resolve goal conflicts, and implies the existence of cognitive processes that handle these demands (henceforth subsumed under the term ‘goal management‘). Goal management is a central feature of successful planning and problem-solving (Doerner et al 1983). For these reasons, the present project will focus on goal management processes and how they relate to basic cognition and real-life functional outcome.

Most cognitive neuroscientific research relevant to the present topic has been subsumed under the term executive function, a concept that has been used to address multiple levels of cognitive processes (Burgess et al 2006; Kaiser et al 2005). However, since the relations between different levels of cognitive processes are the very goal of the present research proposal, we will use the terms complex problem solving / goal management and basic cognition in order to explicitly address the level of the cognitive process under investigation.