Gustavo Ballvé on December 20th, 2010
Food for thought, Home, Mental models, Portfolio Management, Science

Only the New York Times could dedicate a special Science section to the science of puzzles and problem-solving. It’s a very interesting read in aggregate, but one particular article raises many questions. Given the preliminary stage of the research behind this, why should you care? “The idea that a distracted brain can be a more insightful one is still a work in progress. So, for that matter, is the notion that puzzle-solving helps the brain in any way to navigate the labyrinth of soured relationships, uncertain career options or hard choices that so often define the world outside. But at the very least, acing the Saturday crossword or some mind-bending Sudoku suggests that some of the tools for the job are intact. And as any puzzle-head can attest, that buoyant, open state of mind isn’t a bad one to try on for size once in a while. Whether you’re working a puzzle or not.”

The (weak) analogy would be to relentlessly seek to build up your arsenal of mental models and knowledge – the point is to be better suited/ “fertile” for the associations and “click” moments. Another interesting aspect: much of the “recent” developments in the study of the human brain vs. thought mechanisms involves the use of MRI brain scans – yet there’s no consensus in the scientific community about it being fail-proof in revealing causality (“if this area of the brain ‘lights up’, therefore it’s this mechanism at work”). Perhaps one day it will be demonstrated once and for all that MRI brain scans do reveal what they’re assumed to reveal, but in the meantime there could be some body of science built on sand… And if science has its logical pitfalls, investing is much more crowded with “fake axioms”.

Throughout the other articles in this series, the NYT has included videos, podcasts and even puzzles to illustrate or enrich the discussion. Just don’t forget the 24-hour day axiom!

Monumentally Mistyfying: The series opener. Quick read, not much to highlight but this: “Taking on a brain-teasing challenge ‘is hard-wired into our nature,’ (…) ‘There’s something very deep in human nature that loves to solve puzzles — even small children, before they can read, love taking things apart and putting them back together.’ Take the labyrinth, a mystery that can be embodied in stone or hedge or even bales of hay. It promotes ‘wandering — in a physical and a mental way,’ said Hélène Guenin, a curator of a show on labyrinths coming next September to the Centre Pompidou-Metz in France.” A show on labyrinths? Can’t miss it.

No memory, but he filled in the blanks: About a patient who lost all capability of storing new memory but still loved crossword puzzles – and how it actually helped him cope and learn.

The wizard of crossword puzzles: absolutely soft conjectures, but… “He excelled at math as well as music, abilities that he thinks go together with crossword solving. (…) What they all have in common, he said, is pattern recognition (…) ‘Mathematicians and computer scientists are also constructors.’ Arthur Schulman, a crossword constructor and retired psychology professor from the University of Virginia, who taught a seminar called “The Mind of the Puzzler,” agreed that there is a strong correlation between skill at word puzzles and talent for math and music. All, he said, involve playing with symbols that in and of themselves are not meaningful. ‘There’s an underlying connection, but I’m not sure what it might be,’ Professor Schulman said. ‘It’s finding meaning in structure.’

Crafting the perfect crossword: On creating puzzles – “Like about a third of the puzzling students, Ms. Lucido is a computer science major. ‘A very large percentage of crossword puzzle constructors are into computers or math as professions,’ Mr. Shortz said. He thinks that is because ‘crossword making involves having this huge amount of data and synthesizing it into a grid.’ But constructing puzzles is like writing, too. ‘You want the perfect word,’ he said, ‘le mot juste.’

Why do puzzles at all? – Teller (half of the Penn & Teller duo) writes about why humans subject themselves to the “pain and frustration” of problem-solving. His prose is actually surprisingly good.

The rush of the crossword puzzle moment: Do you learn stuff you didn’t know when doing crossword puzzles, or do you just “recall” what you didn’t know that you knew? Again we go back to the associations and “click” moments that the prepared mind is probably better set to experience.

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