A brain that loves puzzles
This dedication to detail pays off in pleasure when solvers manage to unravel the puzzler’s tangled clues. And now cognitive scientists have developed a new appreciation for the role of puzzles in our mental development.
Daniel Bor, a neuroscientist at the University of Sussex and the author of The Ravenous Brain, discovered that when the brain is presented with the opportunity to spot patterns, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain associated with IQ and consciousness – activates very strongly.
“I argue spotting patterns is the main purpose of consciousness,” Dr. Bor says. “When we as an animal are going through our normal habitual lives and everything’s okay, we can rely on our instincts and habits. But if we’re starving or there’s some new predator that’s about to eat us, then we have to innovate and have to spot some new pattern that’s going to get us out of this rut.”
Crossword puzzles in themselves don’t help us in daily life. But by their deceptive design, they satisfy a brain that’s desperate not to be bored by the same old thing. “The whole point of a challenging crossword is that it can never be automatic,” Dr. Bor says. “Searching for novelty is something that’s particularly human, and building new patterns is what’s really exciting. I can daydream when I drive, even though I have clear memories of a time when I really struggled as a driver. But I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to daydream your way to a crossword solution, which is why a puzzle is more fun than driving.”
It makes sense that riddles and puzzles have always been with us – Wynne’s innovation simply elaborated a constant human preoccupation into a new level of consciousness. The prophesies of ancient oracles dripped with dangerous ambiguity: At Delphi, King Croesus was told that, if he invaded Persia, he would destroy a great empire. He didn’t stop to consider that the empire might be his own. At Thebes, the legendary sphinx regularly killed off travellers who couldn’t interpret the question, “What creature walks on four legs at dawn, two at noon and three in the evening?”
Words, as employed by the experts, were the stuff of incantations, life-giving remedies, metrical memories that conjured up ancient wars and heroes, dimension-crossing prayers to supernatural beings, and unseen traps for the uninitiated. Over much of verbal history, the playfulness of language served as a modelling of the world’s unexpectedness, an ever-present warning against giving in to the habitual and taking things as they seem.
“This kind of activity exists from the beginning of civilization and spans all the various codes that we use to express ourselves,” says Marcel Danesi, professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto and author of The Puzzle Instinct. “There’s something in the particular way a puzzle expresses a dilemma that intrigues us. The puzzle is the non-obvious: It presents a situation that seems chaotic, and we have an innate instinct to restore order to that situation, to bring the clues together.”
It’s an instinct of survival, and especially powerful in the very young: How do we make sense of a world that’s constantly throwing surprises at us, how do we reorder the cascade of sensory data being hurled at us into an object we can call a chair, or an entity that’s recognizable as a friend and ally? Children are especially adept at sorting out visualization puzzles like hidden-word searches and the treasure maps printed on a restaurant’s paper placemats – descendants of the mazes and labyrinths that were once the stuff of heroic legends.
Do these lessons of human uncertainty endure in an art-form that relies so much on hidden meanings? Alan Connor thinks so. “With cryptic crosswords particularly, you’re always trying to spot ambiguity and realize that what somebody appears to be saying may be the exact opposite of what they mean. It’s useful to have that kind of skepticism when you encounter advertising or a politician’s speech.”
A future without print?
Or maybe skeptics just gravitate to crosswords.
It’s a natural tendency to look for the value-added usefulness of a pursuit that takes up so much of our time and penetrates to the best parts of our brain. Alas, there is no research that yet confirms the widespread belief that the mental exercise of the crossword can ward off dementia – doing crosswords simply makes you better at doing crosswords, and whatever joy and self-esteem you get from that should be seen as an end in itself. Certainly there are few mental pleasures that can rival the sensation of walking away from an impossible clue – “Of, of, of, of, of, of, of, of, of, of” – and then suddenly realizing you’ve found the 10-letter answer, or the answer’s found you: OF TEN TIMES, OFTENTIMES.