Reasoning and problem solving depend on the ability to represent and integrate complex relationships among stimuli. For example, deciding whether an animal is dangerous requires integrating information about the type of animal, its size, its distance from oneself, and one's proximity to shelter. Relational complexity increases with the number of such interdependent elements that must be simultaneously considered to solve a problem. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging to identify brain regions that respond selectively in processing high levels of relational complexity. Performance on nonverbal reasoning problems in which relational complexity was varied parametrically was compared with performance on control problems in which relational complexity was held constant while difficulty was manipulated by adding distractor forms to the problems. Increasing complexity and adding distractors both led to increased activation in parietal and in dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, with high levels of relational complexity selectively activating anterior left prefrontal cortex. Our data provide evidence that brain regions specific to integrating complex relations among stimuli are distinct from those involved in coping with general task difficulty and with working-memory demands.
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