A fresh look at research strategies in computational cognitive science: the case of enculturated mathematical problem solving

Regina E. Fabry*, Markus Pantsar

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


Marr’s seminal distinction between computational, algorithmic, and implementational levels of analysis has inspired research in cognitive science for more than 30 years. According to a widely-used paradigm, the modelling of cognitive processes should mainly operate on the computational level and be targeted at the idealised competence, rather than the actual performance of cognisers in a specific domain. In this paper, we explore how this paradigm can be adopted and revised to understand mathematical problem solving. The computational-level approach applies methods from computational complexity theory and focuses on optimal strategies for completing cognitive tasks. However, human cognitive capacities in mathematical problem solving are essentially characterised by processes that are computationally sub-optimal, because they initially add to the computational complexity of the solutions. Yet, these solutions can be optimal for human cognisers given the acquisition and enactment of mathematical practices. Here we present diagrams and the spatial manipulation of symbols as two examples of problem solving strategies that can be computationally sub-optimal but humanly optimal. These aspects need to be taken into account when analysing competence in mathematical problem solving. Empirically informed considerations on enculturation can help identify, explore, and model the cognitive processes involved in problem solving tasks. The enculturation account of mathematical problem solving strongly suggests that computational-level analyses need to be complemented by considerations on the algorithmic and implementational levels. The emerging research strategy can help develop algorithms that model what we call enculturated cognitive optimality in an empirically plausible and ecologically valid way.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3221–3263
Number of pages43
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • mathematical problem solving
  • levels of analysis
  • computational modelling
  • competence
  • performance
  • computational complexity
  • enculturation
  • neural plasticity
  • embodied cognition


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