Frontal and parietal participation in problem solving in the Tower of London: fMRI and computational modeling of planning and high-level perception

Sharlene D. Newman, Patricia A. Carpenter, Sashank Varma, Marcel Adam Just

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

289 Scopus citations


This study triangulates executive planning and visuo-spatial reasoning in the context of the Tower of London (TOL) task by using a variety of methodological approaches. These approaches include functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), functional connectivity analysis, individual difference analysis, and computational modeling. A graded fMRI paradigm compared the brain activation during the solution of problems with varying path lengths: easy (1 and 2 moves), moderate (3 and 4 moves) and difficult (5 and 6 moves). There were three central findings regarding the prefrontal cortex: (1) while both the left and right prefrontal cortices were equally involved during the solution of moderate and difficult problems, the activation on the right was differentially attenuated during the solution of the easy problems; (2) the activation observed in the right prefrontal cortex was highly correlated with individual differences in working memory (measured independently by the reading span task); and (3) different patterns of functional connectivity were observed in the left and right prefrontal cortices. Results obtained from the superior parietal region also revealed left/right differences; only the left superior parietal region revealed an effect of difficulty. These fMRI results converged upon two hypotheses: (1) the right prefrontal area may be more involved in the generation of a plan, whereas the left prefrontal area may be more involved in plan execution; and (2) the right superior parietal region is more involved in attention processes while the left homologue is more of a visuo-spatial workspace. A 4CAPS computational model of the cognitive processes and brain activation in the TOL task integrated these hypothesized mechanisms, and provided a reasonably good fit to the observed behavioral and brain activation data. The multiple research approaches presented here converge on a deepening understanding of the combination of perceptual and conceptual processes in this type of visual problem solving.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1668-1682
Number of pages15
Issue number12
StatePublished - 2003

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported in part by the Office of Naval Research, Grant N00014-96-1-0322, Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Grant F-49620-97-1-0368, National Institute of Mental Health Senior Scientist Awards MH-00661 and MH-00662.


  • 4CAPS
  • Computational modeling
  • Planning
  • Problem solving
  • Spatial working memory
  • Tower of London
  • fMRI


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