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Biological Psychology





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A wealth of studies have investigated how to overcome experience-based constraints in creative problem solving. One such experience-based constraint is the tendency for people to view tightly organized visual stimuli as single, unified percepts, even when decomposition of those stimuli into component parts (termed chunk decomposition) would facilitate problem solving. The current study investigates the neural underpinnings of chunk decomposition in creative problem solving by analyzing event-related potentials. In two experiments, participants decomposed Chinese characters into the character’s component elements and then used the base elements to form a new valid character. The action could require decomposing a “tight” chunk, meaning that the component elements intersected spatially, or a “loose” chunk, in which the component elements did not overlap in space. Behaviorally, individuals made more errors and responded slower to trials involving tight chunks relative to loose chunks. Analysis of the ERPs revealed that relative to loose chunks, the electrophysiological response to tight chunks contained an increased N2, an increased N400, and a decreased late positive complex. Taken together, these results suggest that chunk tightness is a principle determinant of the difficulty of chunk decomposition, and that chunk tightness provokes neural conflict and semantic violations, factors known to influence the N2 and N400 ERP components.