The human mind is, in and of itself, a puzzle. The connection between brain functions and crossword puzzles are just as intriguing. The process involves retrieving vocabulary words and their meaning from your memory banks, forming an image of the question presented, and the ability to solve problems based on little information that may or may not be literal.

Crosswords probe the connection between ideas and words, and it may involve delving into our subconscious mind in order to retrieve the answers.

How often have you worked a crossword puzzle and know you can answer the problem, but it just doesn’t want to come to the forefront of your conscious? You give up and move on, and all of a sudden that first answer comes into your head. The brain processes that took place in order to retrieve that original answer light up many areas of the brain.

Crosswords can reflect the nature of intuition, hint at the way we retrieve words from our memory, and reveal a surprising connection between puzzle solving and our ability to recognize a human face.

In a paper published in Psychonomic Bulletin and Review (vol. 18, p. 217), Raymond Nickerson, a psychologist at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts brought profession and hobby together by analyzing the mental processes of crossword solving.  “What’s fascinating about a crossword is that it involves many aspects of cognition that we normally study piecemeal, such as memory search and problem solving, all rolled into one ball,” he says.

Nickerson believes that intuition plays a large role in solving crossword puzzles. Sometimes your subconscious mind may be able to quickly retrieve the answer, while at other times you may need to be more methodical in your approach, considering several possible answers before coming up with the perfect fit. At times even the words on your list won’t make much sense, but it does reflect the way your subconscious mind zeros in on the solution to the problem.

Nickerson refers back to the 1990s, when researcher Peter Farvolden from the University of Toronto in Canada gave his subjects four-letter fragments of seven-letter target words (as often occurs in crosswords in the U.S. where many words overlap). As his volunteers tried to come up with the solution they were asked to give all the other words that they come up with while searching their brain for the correct one. He found that the words were associated in meaning with the eventual answer, which hinted that the pre-conscious mind could be solving problems in steps.

Other studies have found that walking away from a problem, and returning with a fresh perspective, can bring you your “aha” moment. Taking your conscious mind to a more relaxed place, or to a diversion, can allow your subconscious mind to work without straining to come up with the solution.

Because subconscious brain processing is hidden from us, it is not clear how the mind sifts through our mental thesaurus in order to answer a clue. Since written language is only a recently evolved reflection of the spoken word, Nickerson guesses that sounds are important. He illustrates this with a simple puzzle: quickly think of four-letter words ending in -any, -eny, -iny, -ony and -uny.

You probably didn’t have much trouble with most of them, but finding one ending in -eny has a different pattern of stress from the natural way of reading the three-letter fragment. Research supported this idea, showing that a three-letter syllable forms a more effective clue than three other consecutive letters. This indicates that our mental dictionary is not just alphabetical, but also phonological. In this case, expressing your words out loud may help.

When given a mixture of solvable and unsolvable word association tests, subjects tend to guess correctly which ones they will and won’t be able to answer. “In crosswords,” says Nickerson, “this ‘feeling of knowing’ can be useful. If you are pretty sure you know the answer, you sensibly spend more time trying to get it; if you are certain that you don’t, you move on and try to get intersecting words instead.”

Nickerson suggests that psychologists could make more use of these puzzles when studying cognition.



About the author:

Ron White is a two-time U.S.A. Memory Champion and memory expert. As a memory  speaker he travels the world to speak before large groups or small company seminars, demonstrating his memory skills and teaching others how to improve their memory, and how important a good memory is in all phases of your life.



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