Tag Archives: problem solving

Anxiety and Problem Solving

Anxiety is defined by the Psychology Dictionary as a “mood state characterized by worry, apprehension, and somatic symptoms.” Everyone experiences it at some point in their life, and in varying forms and intensities. There is ongoing research within the fields of medicine and psychology on how to minimize the frequency and severity of anxiety within individuals who experience it regularly. You may be aware of some of these treatments; SSRIs and SNRIs, cognitive-behavioral, group, and exposure therapies, and so forth. However, you may not know of alternative forms of treatment and self-care that have been found to reduce anxiety in certain individuals.

I would like to show you a fascinating article from Psychology Today, which highlights a brain imaging study conducted by Duke University in 2017. Researchers assessed a group of 120 participants to find out which were most at-risk in terms of responding to anxiety triggers. They did so by exposing participants to stimuli designed to stimulate the brain areas most associated with threats and rewards. Threats cause activation in the amygdala, sometimes resulting in the fight-or-flight response, while the ventral striatum is responsible for regulating motivation and emotions related to reward. The researchers then asked participants to complete a problem-solving task; in this case, a simple math-based memory task, to stimulate activity in their brains’ dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DPC). The DPC is known to be the executive control center of the brain, meaning that it regulates the problem-solving procedures that enable us to overcome obstacles and reach solutions, otherwise known as “goal states.”

The study found that by completing the memory task, participants were consequently less responsive to the threat and reward stimuli usually provoked by stimulation of the amygdala and ventral striatum. In other words, occupying the participants’ prefrontal cortex with cognitive tasks seemed to deter their brains from amplifying the extreme threat and limited reward responses to anxiety. This reduction in symptoms allows for increased mental clarity, higher overall positivity, and (presumably) higher productivity in sufferers of anxiety. What excites me about studies like this is the potential for basic lifestyle choices and task management to be combined with other treatments to significantly decrease or eliminate symptoms of anxiety in its most severe forms. With the increasing knowledge of the brain, which areas are associated with specific functions, and how personal adaptations can lead to greater physiological wellness, I am optimistic about the future of mental health research and development.

Cognition is dependent on a lot of processes; memory, communication, learning, and much more. All of these tasks (and more) are assisted, to some degree, by problem-solving. As you saw with this study, problem-solving can serve to help with more than just overcoming obstacles and forming solutions. If you are interested in learning more about the processes through which we use rules such as algorithms and heuristics to simplify life in a complex world, check out this video from Crash Course (specifically 3:21-5:46):


1. Main article: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/neuronarrative/201801/problem-solving-buffers-the-brain-against-anxiety

2. Definition of Anxiety: https://psychologydictionary.org/anxiety/

3. The original study: https://academic.oup.com/cercor/article/29/1/70/4637600

Problem-Solving Fun!

In this last blog post, I would like to talk about two forms of problem solving: Functional fixedness, and something labeled more informally as “thinking outside the box.”
Functional Fixedness is a cognitive bias that tends to limit a person’s interpretation of what objects can be used for. It was conceived by Gestalt psychologists, who basically focus on perceptions and behaviors. Functional fixedness is considered a process of problem solving. However, the fixedness portion of the title is what stops people from being able to solve certain given problems. Basically, our fixed perceptions of how objects are supposed to be used can set up a road block when it comes to thinking of different methods to use objects. For example, the famous example of the matchbook and the candle is an example of functional fixedness examined by Duncker in 1945. In the example, participants of a study had to figure out how to make sure a candle did not drip wax onto the table, but they were only given a book of matches, a little box of thumb tacks, and the candle. I like to think of functional fixedness problems as trick questions. To solve this problem, you have to think outside of the metaphorical box and not only know that you have to use the box that the tacks were in, but also know that you have to use the wall in front of you, which was not a specifically spoken about object.


I wanted to explore some other, closer to real life, examples of functional fixedness, which brought me to this site. Here, you can see some pretty creative solutions (some better than others obviously) to certain problems or situations. For example, this fountain made out of little kid pools! A much cooler example of functional fixedness, in my opinion, is the Rube Goldberg machine! As stated on Wikipedia, a Rube Goldberg machine can be defined as “a contraption, invention, device, or apparatus that is deliberately over-engineered or overdone to perform a very simple task in a very complicated fashion…” The Rube Goldberg machine takes functional fixedness out of the picture completely, because to make one, it’s pretty impossible to have the mindset that, say, a candle is a candle and it’s only purpose is to give off light. Instead, a Rube Goldberg machine might show us that a candle is something meant to burn a rope to set off the next reaction in a chain of events. It’s a little far-fetched, but bear with me here. To show a popular example of the wonderful Rube Goldberg machine, I suggest watching OK Go’s “This Too Shall Pass” music video.

In this video we see a toy truck being used to start a chain reaction of dominos, some spoons becoming platforms for little metal balls to bounce off of, a tire being used to turn on a series of lamps, and a teapot being used as a weight. These are all very abnormal functions of these objects, therefore demonstrating that the creators of this odd machine have absolutely no problem getting past their functional fixedness.

For those of you who are more interested in hearing about “thinking outside the box” or just want something a little more interactive (and at times infuriating) I recommend:
The Impossible Quiz.
I remember this little internet gem from my middle school years and I never understood it at all. The questions that you’ll see will almost always trip you up if you aren’t careful and really think outside the box. Our textbook calls things like this and the nine dot problem difficult because of an inappropriate problem-solving set –meaning that we don’t typically answer questions the way these problems are meant to be solved because we assume that there are certain rules when playing a game (like this quiz) or solving a problem.
On a personal note, I wonder if these problem solving techniques could naturally become more apparent in our lives, or less apparent, as we grow older. For example, in terms of functional fixedness I believe that as we get older, we assume a more fixed set of perceptions because we learn more and more that objects have specific uses. However, I also think that in terms of “thinking outside the box” we become better at that over time, at least in the case of the Impossible Quiz. Just glancing at it now after not having seen it since middle school, certain questions are more obvious to me because I know more about the world than I did when I was 12. For example [Spoiler Alert], question 6 is basically asking what do you get when you divide an onion? I didn’t know that the answer was shallots when I was 12 because I don’t think I even know that a shallot was a word or a real thing. But anyways, that’s all I’ve got on the subject of age and problem solving techniques. I hope you found these topics as interesting as I did!