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Walk away and come back to it later

Your Humble Blogger has started doing crosswords again. I go through phases with crosswords: I go years without the slightest urge to do one, and then I start doing them every day, or maybe two or three a day, for a few weeks, and then I’m all done for another few years. This time is different; I added the goofy NYT crossword widget to my Google page, which gives me only one puzzle a week, and that’s all I’m doing.

I have never been particularly good at crosswords. I mean, by good-at-crosswords standards. I know the general standard is by NYT day-of-the-week, with Monday being easiest and Saturday hardest (if I am remembering correctly); crossword solvers can describe themselves as being Thursday-level or Wednesday-level, depending on which day they have to really start thinking about the puzzle rather than just filling in the little boxes. The ones the NYT is making available vary in difficulty, and they give the date of publication, so I could figure out the day of the week, but I don’t. Generally, though, I find them moderately time-consuming. I can’t just whip through them, but neither do I generally leave anything blank, or at any rate, not more than a square or two.

What I wanted to write about, though, was the odd thing that happens with puzzles, that I experience with crosswords because those are the ones I do, but I understand is a general phenomenon. I get stuck, I walk away from the puzzle, and then I come back the next day and find a bunch of stuff that seems really easy, and I can’t figure out why I was stuck. I’m not talking about the thing where you get two or three clues you didn’t get before, and that gives you a long one, and then you’ve broken the back of the puzzle. No, I’m talking about the ones you were staring at, had no idea about, and then without getting any new letters, the answers suddenly become obvious.

You all have this, right? About crosswords, or sodoko, or rebussess’s, or videogames, or coding, or carpentry, or whatever you work on. It’s so common that I don’t think I’ve ever really questioned it before. Of course, if you are trying to work something out, and you are stuck, you walk away from it for a while, and then come back with fresh eyes. Everyone knows that.

But… why? Why would that work? I mean, the synapses aren’t, you know, actually wearing grooves in the wrong places in the brain. That’s a metaphor. There’s no evolutionary benefit to humans developing an inability to solve crossword puzzles on one go, but an ability to get inspiration on a second look. The brain isn’t a magic eight-ball that needs shaking up to get a good chance at a positive answer, or a deck of cards that has to be shuffled to prevent the patterns from the previous deal affecting the next one. You aren’t actually changing the brain, physically, at all. Right? You are just walking away and coming back.

I don’t mean to in any way denigrate the experience, or the brain for that matter. It’s really cool that I can think about other things and then come back to a problem and have a chance at improving my thinking about it. It just seems—well, if you were designing human brain function, Gentle Reader, is that the sort of feature you would select?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Snappy answer: conscious direction can get in the way of creative thinking. Letting unconscious processes play with a problem for awhile without the ego's supervision can be liberating and lead to new insight.

Is this a bug or a feature? The Christian theologian in me suggests that here we touch a limit of right reason in a fallen world. Because our wills are corrupted, they can't be relied upon to direct reason rightly all the time. The evolutionary cognitive theorist in me would frame the matter differently, suggesting more positively that the ability to focus rationally on solving a problem is evolutionarily advantageous, but _focus_ has drawbacks as a problem-solving practice, since solving a problem often involves hitting upon notions apparently unrelated to the problem and discovering their relevance (surely the case in interpreting crossword puzzle clues). The human mind has evolved in a way that enables it to employ focused problem-solving, but it is not limited to those resources. It's not an ideal solution--human cognition is far from achieving a theoretical ideal of cognitive power-- but this dual arrangement has obvious adaptive advantages over less flexible cognitive models that either lack a fully developed consciousness or that give consciousness full control over cognition (not that we have any actual examples of the latter).

Agreeing with Chris here; I think evolution has selected for the ability to minimize distraction. When you're hunting or searching for tasty fruit in the jungle, you can't let your brain run off down the twisty corridors. So you have a little editor function that prevents you even thinking in a direction that the overall director has decided is unrelated or nonproductive. But for this type of thinking, the director just isn't smart enough to set up the right boundaries.

the synapses aren’t, you know, actually wearing grooves in the wrong places in the brain. That’s a metaphor. ... You aren’t actually changing the brain, physically, at all. Right?

Wrong! :)

Though "grooves" are not literal, there is plenty of research out there suggesting that most of the changes in our brains over time are a matter of reinforcing connections that get used and weakening those that don't. True, that's more evident in long-term learning than short-term attention, but self-reinforcing cycles appear to be the standby of cognition. Without an external input to perturb the loop, there's a tendency to repeat.

Taking a break definitely changes the patterns of activation in your brain and lets you enter the problem from a new direction. More, your basic state of mind (and body) affects recall and cognition -- I read an interesting abstract a while ago about students cramming for tests, drawing the conclusion that your recall of facts and problem-solving skills are best when your body chemistry and mood are closest to their state when you learned them. So if you get up and get coffee before you come back to that crossword, yes, you have changed your brain physically.


It's also why weed does what it does. THC inhibits the normal reactions of receptors, such that the signals are forced to take unfamiliar pathways to arrive at the same destinations. This allows intuitive and creative leaps, but it also inhibits normal processes, like memory and inhibitions.

Or so I hear.

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