Discovering the Sequential Structure of Thought



Multi-voxel pattern recognition techniques combined with Hidden Markov models can be used to discover the mental states that people go through in performing a task. The combined method identifies both the mental states and how their durations vary with experimental conditions. We apply this method to a task where participants solve novel mathematical problems. We identify four states in the solution of these problems: Encoding, Planning, Solving, and Respond. The method allows us to interpret what participants are doing on individual problem-solving trials. The duration of the planning state varies on a trial-to-trial basis with novelty of the problem. The duration of solution stage similarly varies with the amount of computation needed to produce a solution once a plan is devised. The response stage similarly varies with the complexity of the answer produced. In addition, we identified a number of effects that ran counter to a prior model of the task. Thus, we were able to decompose the overall problem-solving time into estimates of its components and in way that serves to guide theory.