07/23/2024

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Puzzles have saved my sanity during a pandemic – I believe they can save the world.

Maybe it sounds like a puzzle addict trying to justify the thousands of hours I’ve spent battling crosswords, logic problems, puzzles, and other forms of enjoyable mental abuse.

Of course, that’s part of it.

But after delving into the science and history of puzzles over the past three years, and interviewing dozens of researchers and psychologists, I’ve come to believe that puzzles are not a waste of time. They are not frivolous addictions. You don’t have to feel guilty about your daily Wordle habit or skipping the gym to go to the escape room.

Instead, puzzles are an important tool for training us in how to solve life’s problems, from personal problems to world crises. Small problems help us solve big problems in life.

The secret is what I call puzzle thinking. It’s the mindset needed to be a good puzzler, and I’ve found that it permeates life outside of puzzles. Puzzler Mindset is characterized by being very curious, solution-oriented, rigorous, cognitively flexible, and receptive to the perspectives of others.

For some reason I started this list with “curiosity”. This is the most important attribute that almost all puzzle players I’ve come across have. They both have an almost obsessive desire to solve problems, to solve problems. That’s why a puzzle-solving motto is “be curious, not angry”.

Anger is often an obstacle to solving puzzles. I am well aware of this too. I threw the Rubik’s Cube puzzle across the room. I knocked on the table while doing the sly British crossword. But the more angry you are, the less likely you are to solve the puzzle. Research shows that anger can negatively affect your decision-making.

In real life, there are many reasons to be angry, and anger can be a powerful motivator, but when I can, I try to balance my anger with curiosity. Consider one of the most irritating mysteries in real life: why do people have such different beliefs? When I talk to people on the other side of the political spectrum, I try to frame the discussion as a puzzle, not a war of words. What do we really disagree with? Why do we believe what we believe? What evidence can she provide to change my mind? What can I offer that might change her? This is a mystery that only we can solve together.

Research has shown that this puzzle-solving approach may be the best way to actually develop our perspective. A promising technique — called deep canvassing — focuses on participants asking puzzling questions: Why do we believe what we believe?

This brings another advantage of puzzle thinking: it brings people together.

Consider an escape room. These hit games can only be solved with teammates, each focusing on their strengths. This quote sounds like I created it to support my puzzle agenda, but it actually comes from a meta-analysis of 68 peer-reviewed studies by real scientists: Escape rooms “enhance social relationships, activate teamwork, and promote Panel discussion on deep learning.”

Harvard law professor and behavioral economist Cass Sunstein agrees with this finding. He examines ways to bridge the gap between liberals and conservatives. One of the only activities he found that brought them together was solving crossword puzzles together.

That’s not the only evidence that puzzle thinking makes us less tribal. Harvard psychology professor Joshua Greene conducted an experiment in which he gave a group of people logic puzzles, but not a control group. He then asked subjects questions about ethical dilemmas.

The subjects who did the puzzle answered in a more altruistic way and were more likely to put the interests of society ahead of themselves or their political tribes. This is because puzzles train us to be more rigorous thinkers, less subject to atavistic emotions. Puzzles can change the way you see the world.

With puzzle thinking, you will become more solution oriented. You want to solve the problem and not fall into despair. Even the framing of real-life problems can have an impact. If I hear “climate crisis,” I want to curl up in a corner, like a fetus. If I hear the “climate conundrum,” I want to roll up my sleeves and try to solve it.

Puzzlers show amazing perseverance in solving problems. One of my favorite puzzles is Kryptos. A sculpture at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, it contains a puzzling 1,800-letter code that even the CIA itself has yet to solve. I’m on the email list of thousands of solvers who come up with another theory every day. Maybe the key is Dante’s hell? Maybe a druid rune? These guys have been doing this work since Kryptos came out more than 30 years ago. Now is the time to hold on! I try to remember my Kryptos friends when I help my son with his math homework and I feel like giving up after two minutes.

One reason these people haven’t given up on Kryptos is because guessers can accept mistakes. The best puzzle solvers always try to disprove their assumptions. That’s why I use pencils when I do crosswords. If you fall in love with a wrong solution, you will never succeed. You need maximum cognitive flexibility.

Of course, this is the absence of so much public discourse that we are ruled by motivated reasoning and changing our minds is seen as a sign of shame. The best puzzle solvers and scientists take the opposite approach. As Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman said, “Making mistakes is the only way I can be sure I’ve learned anything.”

Finally, Puzzler Mindset encourages us to see the world from a different perspective. This is a key strategy for solving puzzles. One of the most famous and difficult logic puzzles of all time centers on people with blue, green, and brown eyes. The only way to solve this puzzle is to take an islander’s perspective. You have to switch between the green-eyed, brown-eyed, and blue-eyed drifter perspectives.

You have to consider what each islander knows, and more importantly – what they know about the other islanders. This way of thinking is critical to game theory and is known as “common sense.”

It requires you to think differently. or several people. I find this mental exercise trains me to see the world from other perspectives, an important skill in the tribal age.

The meta-puzzle is: How do we get more people to adopt puzzle thinking. Well, for starters, why not do more puzzles?

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