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Front Psychol. 2013 Sep 26;4:631. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00631. eCollection 2013.

Environmental influences on neural systems of relational complexity.

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KIDLAB, Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study, George Mason University Fairfax, VA, USA ; Graduate Neuroscience, College of Science, George Mason University Fairfax, VA, USA ; College of Education and Human Development, George Mason University Fairfax, VA, USA ; Department of Pediatrics, The George Washington School of Medicine and Health Sciences Washington, DC, USA.


Constructivist learning theory contends that we construct knowledge by experience and that environmental context influences learning. To explore this principle, we examined the cognitive process relational complexity (RC), defined as the number of visual dimensions considered during problem solving on a matrix reasoning task and a well-documented measure of mature reasoning capacity. We sought to determine how the visual environment influences RC by examining the influence of color and visual contrast on RC in a neuroimaging task. To specify the contributions of sensory demand and relational integration to reasoning, our participants performed a non-verbal matrix task comprised of color, no-color line, or black-white visual contrast conditions parametrically varied by complexity (relations 0, 1, 2). The use of matrix reasoning is ecologically valid for its psychometric relevance and for its potential to link the processing of psychophysically specific visual properties with various levels of RC during reasoning. The role of these elements is important because matrix tests assess intellectual aptitude based on these seemingly context-less exercises. This experiment is a first step toward examining the psychophysical underpinnings of performance on these types of problems. The importance of this is increased in light of recent evidence that intelligence can be linked to visual discrimination. We submit three main findings. First, color and black-white visual contrast (BWVC) add demand at a basic sensory level, but contributions from color and from BWVC are dissociable in cortex such that color engages a "reasoning heuristic" and BWVC engages a "sensory heuristic." Second, color supports contextual sense-making by boosting salience resulting in faster problem solving. Lastly, when visual complexity reaches 2-relations, color and visual contrast relinquish salience to other dimensions of problem solving.


color perception; constructivist learning; event-related fMRI; heuristic processing; prefrontal cortex; reasoning; relational complexity; visual contrast

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