Can working on puzzles ‘widen’ your mind?

Chasing the “Aha” of puzzle solving

We have all chased the “Aha” moment that occurs when coming up with a solution to the problem and felt how good it feels, how satisfying it is. But research indicates that our brain starts changing state even before we engage in a problem, as if we are preparing our brains for the challenge – like warming up before a big race.

“In a series of recent studies, Dr. Beeman at Northwestern and John Kounios, a psychologist at Drexel University, have imaged people’s brains as they prepare to tackle a puzzle but before they’ve seen it. Those whose brains show a particular signature of preparatory activity, one that is strongly correlated with positive moods, turn out to be more likely to solve the puzzles with sudden insight than with trial and error (the clues can be solved either way).”

Two categories of puzzles ?

Problems can be simplistically broken into ones that require insight – a mental leap, and ones that are solved by a more systematic analysis. Now there is debate in the field of what is most dominant in problem solving – insight or analysis. But like most of these type of arguments it appears both play an important role:

“Yet in an authoritative review of the research, the psychologists Jonathan W. Schooler and Joseph Melcher concluded that the abilities most strongly correlated with insight problem-solving “were not significantly correlated” with solving analytical problems.

Either way, creative problem-solving usually requires both analysis and sudden out-of-the-box insight.”

I personally like the idea that both of these skills are required for I think this would lead to better brain health. This is how Adam Anderson a psychologist put it:

“You really end up toggling between the two, but I think that they are truly different brain states,”

Jumping from deep analysis to sudden out-of-the box insight

The ability to toggle between brain states I think is a good thing, and if you tackle problems that require both deep analysis and out-of-the box insight (which appears to be many types of puzzles and problems) I think it would add to your brain plasticity and adaptability.

Widen your mind

If we turn to the brain scan studies that examine how our brain prepares to solve problems researchers found this:

“Previous research has found that cells in this area (anterior cingulate cortex) are active when people widen or narrow their attention — say, when they filter out distractions to concentrate on a difficult task, like listening for a voice in a noisy room. In this case of insight puzzle-solving, the brain seems to widen its attention, in effect making itself more open to distraction, to weaker connections.”

Widening your brain sounds like a very interesting state. Who couldn’t use a widening of their mind and outlook on life?

Now you might not want to be in this state all the time for it probably leads you to be easily distracted. But going with the idea of altering brain states maybe in certain situations you can switch to a broader view of things when solving insightful type of problems, and then switch back to a more narrow concentrated mind state when you have to focus on a particular task that requires a tightened focus.

Take home message:

Working on puzzles and problems that require back and forth switching from deep analysis to sudden out-of-the box insight is likely good for your brain health – keeping it nimble and flexible.

Additionally, playing with puzzles may allow a way to ‘widen’ your mind which may lead you to finding insights into things beyond the particular puzzle you are playing with.

Tomorrow: how puzzles could make you playful, open and happy. (update – how to put your mind into a playful state)

3 comments for “Can working on puzzles ‘widen’ your mind?

  1. John Fett
    February 12, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    I enjoyed your brief article. Can you give me an answer, or lead me to literature, to explain why we are often stumped by a puzzle or crossword answer. Yet, if we put it down and return to it later, the answer comes to us immediately. Thanks.

  2. Ward
    February 13, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    Hi John,

    thanks for your comment. I wish I had an answer for you but us neuroscientist haven’t come up with (far as I know) why when we leave put down a problem we can get the insight to solve it. But it might be related to the playfulness idea. If you are deep into trying to solve the problem your thoughts might be too focused, too limited. And when you take a break your mind opens up and then ‘magically’ come across the solution.

    But you make a very interesting point and maybe in the future scientists could explore this issue. Might be difficult to control, for we don’t always come up with the solution when we put down the problem, but worth a try.