Aside: Puzzles and Creativity

Puzzle solving and creativity are often tied together. So much so that sometimes they appear to be the same thing. I am not sure if they are or not, at least right now, but a recent [NYT article][nyt] presents some recent research that at least suggests that one effect of working puzzles is to allow the rich mode processing of our brain to come more to the fore than it normally does. (We live, most of us, in the linear part of our brain, which is very good at what it does, but it is rather unrelenting in its willingness to dominate our thinking.)

> In a just completed study, researchers at Northwestern University found that people were more likely to solve word puzzles with sudden insight when they were amused, having just seen a short comedy routine.

> “What we think is happening,” said Mark Beeman, a neuroscientist who conducted the study with Karuna Subramaniam, a graduate student, “is that the humor, this positive mood, is lowering the brain’s threshold for detecting weaker or more remote connections” to solve puzzles.

> This and other recent research suggest that the appeal of puzzles goes far deeper than the dopamine-reward rush of finding a solution. The very idea of doing a crossword or a Sudoku puzzle typically shifts the brain into an open, playful state that is itself a pleasing escape, captivating to people as different as Bill Clinton, a puzzle addict, and the famous amnesiac Henry Molaison, or H.M., whose damaged brain craved crosswords.

> And that escape is all the more tantalizing for being incomplete. Unlike the cryptic social and professional mazes of real life, puzzles are reassuringly soluble; but like any serious problem, they require more than mere intellect to crack.

One of the things the study is exploring is how humor can enable rich mode thinking, as well as locating where this thinking is occurring in the brain — at least that appears to be suggested by the use of MRI and the idea that they can distinguish what parts of the brain “light up” during certain moments of an activity.

For those who are wondering, the part of the brain is … * anterior cingulate cortex*.