Humans are nature’s most intelligent and prolific users of external props and aids (such as written texts, slide-rules and software packages). Here we introduce a method for investigating how people make active use of their task environment during problem-solving and apply this approach to the non-verbal Raven Advanced Progressive Matrices test for fluid intelligence. We designed a click-and-drag version of the Raven test in which participants could create different external spatial configurations while solving the puzzles. In our first study, we observed that the click-and-drag test was better than the conventional static test at predicting academic achievement of university students. This pattern of results was partially replicated in a novel sample. Importantly, environment-altering actions were clustered in between periods of apparent inactivity, suggesting that problem-solvers were delicately balancing the execution of internal and external cognitive operations. We observed a systematic relationship between this critical phasic temporal signature and improved test performance. Our approach is widely applicable and offers an opportunity to quantitatively assess a powerful, although understudied, feature of human intelligence: our ability to use external objects, props and aids to solve complex problems.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.25 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
The routines/code that were used to perform the statistical analyses in this study are available from the corresponding author upon request. For the routine/code that was used for simulating the dual-mode and single-mode problem-solvers see Supplementary Code.
The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon request.
Jensen A. R. The G Factor: The Science of Mental Ability. (Praeger, Westport, CT, USA, 1998).
Deary, I. J., Strand, S., Smith, P. & Fernandes, C. Intelligence and educational achievement. Intelligence 35, 13–21 (2007).
Kyllonen, P. C. & Christal, R. E. Reasoning ability is (little more than) working-memory capacity?! Intelligence 14, 389–433 (1990).
Engle, R. W., Tuholski, S. W., Laughlin, J. E. & Conway, A. R. Working memory, short-term memory, and general fluid intelligence: a latent-variable approach. J. Exp. Psychol. Gen. 128, 309–331 (1999).
Duncan, J. et al. A neural basis for general intelligence. Science 289, 457–460 (2000).
Conway, A. R., Cowan, N., Bunting, M. F., Therriault, D. J. & Minkoff, S. R. A latent variable analysis of working memory capacity, short-term memory capacity, processing speed, and general fluid intelligence. Intelligence 30, 163–183 (2002).
Engle, R. W. Working memory as executive attention. Curr. Dir. Psychol. Sci. 11, 19–23 (2002).
Kyllonen, P. C. In The General Factor of Intelligence: How General Is It? (eds. Sternberg, R. J. & Gigorenko, E. L.) 415–445 (Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ, USA, 2002).
Baddeley, A. Working memory: looking back and looking forward. Nat. Rev. Neurosci. 4, 829–839 (2003).
Colom, R., Flores-Mendoza, C. & Rebollo, I. Working memory and intelligence. Pers. Indiv. Differ. 34, 33–39 (2003).
Conway, A. R., Kane, M. J. & Engle, R. W. Working memory capacity and its relation to general intelligence. Trends Cogn. Sci. 7, 547–552 (2003).
Gray, J. R., Chabris, C. F. & Braver, T. S. Neural mechanisms of general fluid intelligence. Nat. Neurosci. 6, 316–322 (2003).
Olesen, P. J., Westerberg, H. & Klingberg, T. Increased prefrontal and parietal activity after training of working memory. Nat. Neurosci. 7, 75–79 (2004).
Kane, M. J., Hambrick, D. Z. & Conway, A. R. A. Working memory capacity and fluid intelligence are strongly related constructs. Psychol. Bull. 131, 66–71 (2005).
Jaeggi, S. M., Buschkuehl, M., Jonides, J. & Perrig, W. J. Improving fluid intelligence with training on working memory. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 6829–6833 (2008).
Hutchins, E. Cognition in the Wild. (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA, 1995).
Clark, A. & Chalmers, D. The extended mind. Analysis 58, 7–19 (1998).
Clark, A. An embodied cognitive science? Trends Cogn. Sci. 3, 345–351 (1999).
Giere, R. in The Cognitive Bases of Science (ed.s Carruthers, P., Stitch, S. & Siegal, M.) 285–299 (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 2002).
Clark, A. Supersizing the Mind: Action, Embodiment, and Cognitive Extension. (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2008).
Rowlands, M. The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology. (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, USA, 2010).
Bocanegra, B. R. Troubling anomalies and exciting conjectures: a bipolar model of scientific discovery. Emot. Rev. 9, 155–162 (2017).
Lee, K., & Karmiloff-Smith, A. In Perceptual and Cognitive Development (eds. Gelman R. et al.) 185–211 (Academic Press, New York, 1996).
Mithen, S. In Evolution and the Human Mind (eds. Carruthers, P. & Chamberlain, A.) 207–217 (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK, 2002).
Clark, A. Natural-born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies and the Future of Human Intelligence. (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, UK, 2003).
Risko, E. F. & Gilbert, S. J. Cognitive offloading. Trends Cogn. Sci. 20, 676–688 (2016).
Risko, E. F. & Dunn, T. L. Storing information in-the-world: metacognition and cognitive offloading in a short-term memory task. Conscious. Cogn. 36, 61–74 (2015).
Gilbert, S. J. Strategic offloading of delayed intentions into the external environment. Q. J. Exp. Psychol. 68, 971–992 (2015).
Vallée-Tourangeau, F., Euden, G. & Hearn, V. Einstellung defused: interactivity and mental set. Q. J. Exp. Psychol. 64, 1889–1895 (2011).
Vallée-Tourangeau, F., Steffensen, S. V., Vallée-Tourangeau, G. & Sirota, M. Insight with hands and things. Acta Psychol. 170, 195–205 (2016).
Weller, A., Villejoubert, G. & Vallée-Tourangeau, F. Interactive insight problem solving. Think. Reasoning 17, 424–439 (2011).
Kirsh, D. & Maglio, P. On distinguishing epistemic from pragmatic action. Cognitive Sci. 18, 513–549 (1994).
Kirsh, D. Thinking with external representations. AI Soc. 25, 441–454 (2010).
Duncan, J., Chylinski, D., Mitchell, D. J. & Bhandari, A. Complexity and compositionality in fluid intelligence. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 114, 5295–5299 (2017).
Kaplan, R. & Saccuzzo, D. Psychological Testing: Principles, Applications, and Issues. 8th edn. (Cengage, Boston, 2012).
Barabasi, A. L. The origin of bursts and heavy tails in human dynamics. Nature 435, 207–211 (2005).
Tomasello, M. The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, MA, USA, 2009).
Goodale, M. Thinking outside the box. Nature 457, 539–539 (2009).
The authors received no specific funding for this work. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Results, Supplementary Tables 1 and 2, Supplementary Note, Supplementary Figs 1–10, and Supplementary References
An explanation of how the Supplementary Code can be run.
An excel file that allows simulations of the data, noted in the SI and described in the SI Guide.
About this article
Cite this article
Bocanegra, B.R., Poletiek, F.H., Ftitache, B. et al. Intelligent problem-solvers externalize cognitive operations. Nat Hum Behav 3, 136–142 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-018-0509-y
Current Biology (2020)
Psychological Research (2020)
Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2020)
Evolutionary Human Sciences (2020)
Brain Topography (2020)