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Better without (lateral) frontal cortex? Insight problems solved by frontal patients

Carlo Reverberi, Alessio Toraldo, Serena D'Agostini, Miran Skrap
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/brain/awh577 2882-2890 First published online: 23 June 2005

Summary

A recently proposed theory on frontal lobe functions claims that the prefrontal cortex, particularly its dorso-lateral aspect, is crucial in defining a set of responses suitable for a particular task, and biasing these for selection. This activity is carried out for virtually any kind of non-routine tasks, without distinction of content. The aim of this study is to test the prediction of Frith's ‘sculpting the response space’ hypothesis by means of an ‘insight’ problem-solving task, namely the matchstick arithmetic task. Starting from Knoblich et al.'s interpretation for the failure of healthy controls to solve the matchstick problem, and Frith's theory on the role of dorsolateral frontal cortex, we derived the counterintuitive prediction that patients with focal damage to the lateral frontal cortex should perform better than a group of healthy participants on this rather difficult task. We administered the matchstick task to 35 patients (aged 26–65 years) with a single focal brain lesion as determined by a CT or an MRI scan, and to 23 healthy participants (aged 34–62 years). The findings seemed in line with theoretical predictions. While only 43% of healthy participants could solve the most difficult matchstick problems (‘type C’), 82% of lateral frontal patients did so (Fisher's exact test, P < 0.05). In conclusion, the combination of Frith's and Knoblich et al.'s theories was corroborated.

  • executive functions
  • frontal cortex
  • insight, problem solving
  • thinking
  • CTL = control group
  • LAT = lateral frontal
  • MED = medial frontal
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