Solving challenging (‘effortful’) problems is known to involve the dorsal and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in normal volunteers, although there is considerable individual variation. In this functional magnetic resonance imaging study, we show that healthy subjects with different levels of performance in the Tower of London planning task exhibit different patterns of brain activation. All subjects exhibited significant bilateral activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the anterior and posterior cingulate areas and the parietal cortex. However, ‘standard performers’ (performance < 70% correct) and ‘superior performers’ (performance >70% correct) differed in the patterns of activation exhibited. Superior performers showed a significantly more spatially extended activation in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex than did standard performers, whereas the latter group tended to show increased activation of the anterior cingulate region.