Learning to build physical structures better over time

AbstractOur ability to plan and build a wide array of physical structures, from sand castles to skyscrapers, is a defining feature of modern human intelligence. What cognitive tools enable us to create such complex and varied structures? Here we investigate how practice "reverse-engineering" a set of physical structures impacts the procedures that people subsequently use to build those structures, as well as how well they build them over time. Participants (N=105) viewed 2D silhouettes of 8 unique block towers in a virtual environment simulating rigid-body physics, and aimed to reconstruct each one in less than 60 seconds. We found that people learn to build each tower more accurately and quickly across repeated attempts, and that these gains reflect both group-level convergence upon a smaller set of viable policies, as well as error-dependent updating of each individual's strategies.Taken together, our study provides novel insight into how humans learn from prior experience to discover better solutions to physical reasoning problems over time.

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