The Role of Motor Activity in Insight Problem Solving (the Case of the Nine-Dot Problem)
Attempts to estimate the contribution made by motor activity to insight problem solving is hindered by a lack of detailed description of motor behavior. The goal of this study was to develop and put to the test a novel method for studying the dynamics of insight problem solving based on a quantitative analysis of ongoing motor activity. As a proper task model, we chose the nine-dot problem (Maier, 1930), in which solvers had to draw a sequence of connected line segments. Instead of using the traditional pen-and-paper way of solving the nine-dot problem we asked participants to use their index finger to draw line segments on the surface of a tablet computer. We are arguing that successful studying of the role of motor activity during problem solving requires the distinction between its instrumental and functional role. We considered the functional role on the motor activity as closely related to the on-line mode of motor planning.
The goal of Experiment 1 was to explore the potential power of the method and, at the same time, to assay the patterns of motor activity related to on-line and off-line modes of motor planning. Experiments 2 and 3 were designed to uncover the potential impact of preliminary motor training on the motor output of successful and unsuccessful problem solvers. In these experiments, we tested hypotheses on how preliminary motor training, which presumably played a functional role in Experiment 2 and an instrumental role in Experiment 3, affects the motor activity of a problem solver and hence their effectiveness in solving the problem.
The three experiments showed consistent results. They suggest that successful solving of the nine-dot problem relies upon the functional role of motor activity and requires both off-line and on-line modes of motor planning, with the latter helping to overcome the perceptual constraints imposed by a spatial arrangement of the nine dots. The method that we applied allows for systematic comparison between successful and unsuccessful problem solvers based on the quantitative parameters of their motor activity. Through it, we found new specific patterns of motor activity that differentiate successful and unsuccessful solvers.