© Charles Chandler
The previous section established how physical needs give rise to imaginings of scenarios in which those needs do not exist. Such imaginings provide the immediate benefit of a sense of well being, since they trick the rest of the brain into believing that the problem has already been solved. In spite of such instant gratification, if the problem persists long enough, imagining satiation becomes the anchor for goal-oriented behaviors. That section concluded with a description of a natural problem solving process that appears to be consistent with both neuroscientific and behavioral principles. This section elaborates on that process, and considers the practical value of organizing everyday problem solving with a framework based on these principles.
The essential premise is that we, as biological organisms, receive information from the external world, process it, and then issue actions back into that world, which alter the conditions affecting us. Thus the general form is that of a continuous loop. The five steps identified in the previous section have been expanded to ten distinct stages of processing (shown at right), on the basis of differences in kind between preceding and succeeding stages, suggesting semi-discrete processes. It starts at the bottom, with Matter being the prime mover, and with the feed-forward direction being clockwise.
Matter First there is the material world, which has taken its current form by natural laws, including the influences of people (including us) in the past.
Sensations We sense the conditions in the world around us. This includes both information and biologic insult. From the information we infer causal patterns, which will figure significantly in all subsequent stages, but which never occur outside of the context of a stage in a problem solving process. Thus we must always struggle to wrestle the truth out of whatever ulterior motive is controlling that information.
Desires The problematic sensations have to be isolated and formulated into needs, wishes, and desires. It's useful to define desires independent of what would satisfy them. For example, hunger is a desire, while food is the object of that desire. If we define a desire as the want for its object, we have already committed ourselves to that object, and sometimes that's a mistake, if other objects would have worked better. It's also important that desires not be allowed to corrupt information. They're all just inbound data, while some of them are informational, and others are problematic. If we're not careful, the problems will bleed over into the information, and then even the information will be problematic.
Objectives Then there is the object of desire, which frequently is its opposite. This is the definition of success, or the goal that is to be accomplished. It's important that this be checked for whether or not it will actually satisfy the desire. Some goals seem very logical, but when accomplished, still leave us wanting.
Strategies With the goal in mind, a fundamental approach to achieving it can be determined, by working backwards from the target scenario. This should be done with an open mind, and the strategy needs to be double-checked that it will actually lead invariably to the objective. Sometimes we adopt strategies simply because they seem to be related to the circumstances in which success is typically achieved, but which actually lack the causal agent.
Procedures While a strategic analysis works backward from the goal, to be carried out it has to be reformulated into a forward-only series of step-by-step instructions. Frequently this reveals entirely new issues with the strategy, when it is expressed in fully sequential form.
Resources The requirements for carrying out the instructions need to be enumerated. This is a good time to check to see that the benefits of achieving the goal are actually worth the resources that must be expended in the process.
Schedules The most precious resource of all is time, and it's also the strictest — it moves at a steady rate, always in one direction, and can never be recovered. It should be the easiest resource to manage, but mapping a hyperdimensional priority list onto a linear scale takes a lot of effort.
Resolution Invariably, conflicts arise between competing interests that need to be resolved, to keep projects on track.
Action Finally we go into action, and thus we influence the material world, completing the loop.
Each of the stages in this process can be seen as just a refinement of the previous stage, while there is also something distinctive about each stage. Understanding the unique type of processing done at each stage is important in getting the most out of the endeavor.
Now we must acknowledge that we cannot stop the world so that we can isolate the activity within each of these stages. Rather, while we're still alive in the material world, all of these stages are active at all times. The difference is simply an issue of focus. We are always sensing the world, and engaged in some sort of activity. So all parts of the system are always on. But we might shift the focus to highlight the strategy, or the resources, or whatever we're doing with our hands.
Next we can easily see that we don't always explicitly go through each step — some cycles are short-circuited. A knee-jerk reflex goes straight from sensation to action, and it's such a short loop that it doesn't even involve the brain — the "processing" occurs entirely within the spinal cord. Other loops involve some of the brain, but as soon as we realize that a well-known desire has emerged, we go immediately into the well-known action that satisfies the desire, without consciously studying each aspect of the process. All of the problem-solving regions are still there, making their contributions, but without requiring focus to do so. Hence if we stop typing to scratch an itch, the "procedure" for this doesn't require conscious attention, and the only resource to be expended is a couple seconds of time — this gets immediately "scheduled", and the "resolution" is to stop typing and scratch the itch, so we can get back to typing. Other problems require a great deal of attention to each stage in the process, and the key to solving the problem might be anywhere — it could just require more resolve, or it might take re-thinking the strategy. Perhaps we have to go over the whole process many times before finally arriving at the best solution. Fully understanding the distinctive nature of each stage can help, by reminding us that there are 10 different ways of looking at every problem.
Here is an example of a simple problem solving process, which many people would be able to accomplish pretty much without thinking about it, but which serves to show which types of information go in which stages of the process.
Matter empty stomach
Sensations hunger pangs
Desires to be full
Objectives to eat food
Strategies cook & eat dinner
recipe for chicken cordon bleu
  1. Butterfly a chicken breast.
  2. Insert thin slices of ham and cheese inside.
  3. Roll into a roulade, coated in bread crumbs.
  4. Deep fry.
sides: green beans, potatoes
beverages: merlot, water
groceries: chicken, prosciutto, provologne cheese, vegetable oil, green beans, potatoes, wine
money: $30
time: 1½ hours (preparation & dining)
Schedules stop by grocery store after work, get home, begin prep, serve at 7 p.m.
Resolution talk to spouse, agree on dinner plan
Action left work: 5 p.m., got home from store: 6 p.m., served dinner: 7 p.m., got full: 7:30 p.m.
Sensations primary sensory
Desires secondary sensory
Objectives posterior parietal
Strategies posterior parietal
secondary motor
Resources prefrontal
Schedules prefrontal
Resolution prefrontal
Action primary motor
These stages of processing appear to correspond loosely to specific areas of the cerebral cortex, and their order in the process corresponds loosely to the sequence in which areas of the brain get activated when confronted with new problems, though the brain is so fully non-linear that it would be a mistake to think that any process, or part thereof, is fully containerized in any specific region. So the point here is merely that this process matches up roughly with neuroanatomy. The significance is that as we learn more about neuroanatomy, it might continue to inform and inspire our macroscopic understanding of the process.
Next we should acknowledge that in addition to the simple feed-forward pathways, there are also feed-back tracts, which enable one part of the brain to modulate another that occurs earlier in the processing direction. And there are short-circuit pathways, which skip one or more steps in the full loop. Shown at right, and described below, are just a representative sampling of the possibilities.
  • Will Power
    • The success of any endeavor requires the suppression of desires that are not currently being addressed, such that those that are will not be denied satisfaction due to inappropriate distractions.
  • Feasibility
    • In the selection of an objective, the motivation comes from how much satisfaction can be achieved with how little effort. But we don't always know in advance how much effort a particular objective will take. So as the analysis proceeds, and the costs of each strategy become known, they can inform the selection of objectives.
  • Attentiveness
    • When carrying out actions, we need to constantly be monitoring the environment. So this is using the senses for their informational content, and with respect to aspects on the environment that might have nothing to do with needs that are arising from the situation.
  • Impulsiveness
    • In the case of particularly strong desires, and/or when elaborate problem-solving processes do not suffice, we might just go straight into action on the basis of an urge that we believe can be satisfied without any additional brain power.
  • Discipline
    • Invariably, the success of any project comes down to the ability to stick to a well-formed plan, despite being surrounded by distractions, because incomplete results never satisfied anybody.
We spend most of our time carrying out well-known procedures. When we do, one of the "actions" that we take is to direct the sensory organs (e.g., eyes) toward what we are doing with our hands and/or feet, to gather information that can be used to modulate our actions. All of the other areas of the brain are dormant during such activities.
In this context, it's easy to understand how sometimes, in the process of carrying out procedures, we forget to accomplish the objective, and sometimes consume more resources than the objective was worth in the first place — those parts of the brain are not active.

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