The roles of prefrontal and posterior parietal cortex in algebra problem solving: A case of using cognitive modeling to inform neuroimaging data

Date of Original Version




Abstract or Description

In naturalistic algebra problem solving, the cognitive processes of representation and retrieval are typically confounded, in that transformations of the equations typically require retrieval of mathematical facts. Previous work using cognitive modeling has associated activity in the prefrontal cortex with the retrieval demands of algebra problems and activity in the posterior parietal cortex with the transformational demands of algebra problems, but these regions tend to behave similarly in response to task manipulations (Anderson, J.R., Qin, Y., Sohn, M.-H., Stenger, V.A., Carter, C.S., 2003. An information-processing model of the BOLD response in symbol manipulation tasks. Psychon. Bull. Rev. 10, 241–261; Qin, Y., Carter, C.S., Silk, E.M., Stenger, A., Fissell, K., Goode, A., Anderson, J.R., 2004. The change of brain activation patterns as children learn algebra equation solving. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 101, 5686–5691). With this study we attempt to isolate activity in these two regions by using a multi-step algebra task in which transformation (parietal) is manipulated in the first step and retrieval (prefrontal) is manipulated in the second step. Counter to our initial predictions, both brain regions were differentially active during both steps. We designed two cognitive models, one encompassing our initial assumptions and one in which both processes were engaged during both steps. The first model provided a poor fit to the behavioral and neural data, while the second model fit both well. This simultaneously emphasizes the strong relationship between retrieval and representation in mathematical reasoning and demonstrates that cognitive modeling can serve as a useful tool for understanding task manipulations in neuroimaging experiments.


Published In

NeuroImage , 35, 1365-1377.