A hierarchy for relational reasoning in the prefrontal cortex

Daniel C. Krawczyk, M. Michelle McClelland, Colin M. Donovan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

69 Scopus citations


The human brain possesses a unique capacity to reason about abstract relationships among items in our environment. The neural organization of reasoning abilities has remained elusive. Two approaches toward investigating human reasoning have involved studying visuo-spatial reasoning abilities and studying analogical reasoning. These approaches have both revealed anterior prefrontal cortex (PFC) involvement, but no prior studies have jointly investigated these two forms of reasoning to understand any potential convergence of activation within the PFC. Using fMRI, we tested the extent to which these two forms of reasoning (visuo-spatial and analogical) overlap in PFC activation. We conducted a visuo-spatial reasoning task that required processing multiple changes across three abstract pictures. This task activated a progressively anterior series of PFC regions when multiple relations had to be integrated. We also conducted a four-term analogy task in a stage-wise manner and compared results from this task to semantic and perceptual control conditions that did not require integrating relations across the problems. We found greater activation for analogical reasoning in the series of PFC regions that were sequentially involved in the visuo-spatial reasoning task. These findings indicate that stages of neural processing overlap for different domains within human reasoning. The pattern of differences across the analogy task suggests a hierarchical organization for relational reasoning across domains in which posterior frontal cortex is active across concrete reasoning tasks, while progressively more anterior regions are recruited to process increasingly abstract representations in reasoning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)588-597
Number of pages10
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2011


  • Analogy
  • Prefrontal cortex
  • Reasoning
  • Semantic memory
  • Visuo-spatial processing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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