Wednesday, March 26, 2014

MAROONED: Three puzzle clues that show how the brain works

The models of crossword play my lab and I are developing involve trying to understand how our memory works.  Puzzles provide a great analog to memory-based decision making, because they require you to identify your action (your answer) from all the possible knowledge you have, unlike many studies of decision making which are really studies of choosing between given options.  Our work is looking at how we use the cues in front of us to search memory and find the correct answer.

Much of our knowledge can be thought of in terms of associations.  Good crossword clues are ones in which the association from the clue to the answer is weak, but the association, or at least the shared meanings, are strong.  One of the things that makes good players good is that (because they have very good memories of some sort), those associations that are weak for most of us are strong for them, and they can thus access and generate the right answer.

What this means is that along with trying to solve a puzzle, you are also learning about future puzzles you haven't solved yet.  Words appear over and over again in puzzles, and often have similar (or identical) clues, especially for the computer-generated puzzles found in some of the books you buy at airport newsstands.

I was reminded of this when on Tues;day, March 25 2014 NYT puzzle by David Wolf included the somewhat familiar clue:

 47D Strand, in a way.

This was familiar because I had seen it recently in the Friday, March 21 WSJ 2014 puzzle by Maryanne Lemot:

 56A Place apart

and also in the March 7 2014 NYT by Matt Ginsberg

6D Put on a key?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Bright Idea: NYT 3-32-2014

I found Sunday's NYT puzzle by Ian Livengood entitled "A Bright Idea" a good challenge.  Within the theme, there is a hidden message that spells out "AHA MOMENT", which is an aptly meta-level comment on the puzzle, and the psychology of puzzle-solving.

Researchers on problem solving have delineated a special kind of  problem solving in contrast to the normal step-by-step iterative sort: insight-based. Bill Batchelder recently wrote an academic article bemoaning the state of cognitive theory on insight-based problems, and included 19 of these any puzzle solver will get a kick out of if they haven't seen them already.  This includes the legendary 9-dots problem that makes you think 'outside the box'.

 Normal "problems" you solve are often just daily chores or tasks.  The act of solving an entire crossword is a normal problem; you have a general strategy which you execute, piece-by-piece, until you succeed. Both of these are usually well-defined problems in that they have a clear end-state (as opposed to ill-defined problems, which are much harder and include so-called 'black swans' problems).   But insight problems tend not to be solved the way non-insight problems are.  Insight problems are characterized by the so-called "AHA Moment" (which is now part of the scientific terminology).

The basic theory of insight problems handed down from Gestalt psychologists from the middle of the last century suggests that you can't deliberately solve them.  You can work on them over time, and you don't feel like you have made any progress, even up until immediately before you get the answer.  Then, AHA, the answer comes.  This is the essence of solving individual answers of crossword puzzles.  When a clue is easy, you see it immediately.  When it is difficult, you search and search, never getting any closer, until AHA, the answer is there and it seems obvious in retrospect.

Theories  of how to solve insight problems  provide no help for speed-solvers.  The best science has come up with is "Incubate". If you try thinking about something else, take a nap, come back a day later, often you will solve the problem immediately.  Segal showed that incubation of 4-12 minutes improved solutions to insight problems.  So, it might be worthwhile to put the puzzle down, or at least work on some other part of the grid, returning five minutes later.  Of course, the top solvers will have solved 2-3 additional puzzles by then, but maybe those folks don't easily get stuck.

The other thing about crosswords is that because they combine insight and step-based problems, a difficult insight problem adapts as the puzzle gets solved, and becomes easier as more letters are provided.  This makes it easier to access via the letter-clue route, making it more like a non-insight problem.

In terms of A Bright Idea, I experienced several insight problems. For example:

25D Part of a moving line  _ _ _

This one was tough for me; I first thought of CONGA (doesn't fit), which threw me off on 22A Venemous Tree Dweller (which I mistakenly answered SAMBA  instead of MAMBA).  A moving line could be a line outside a concert or ballgame, and once I got _ A N, MAN and FAN seemed possible, but not very good.  Even when I had _AN, the correct answer never came to me, and I got it by figuring out the crossing V; of course VAN makes sense; a moving line also refers to an outfit like Hertz or UHaul. BAH.

Friday, March 21, 2014

What that 'Epic Wheel of Fortune win' tells us about the mind

Recently, a video of Emil, a contestant in the bonus round of Wheel of Fortune went viral because the contestant got the answer to the following:

  NE_  _ _ _ _    _ _ _ _ _

with the clue "THING".

This was an amazing feat, and although not strictly crossword, is very much related.  One of the reasons this was amazing is because the answer was sort of obscure, yet blocked by a high-probability response, which is the basis for a line of research first studied by Roger Brown in the 1960s called the "Tip of the Tongue" phenomenon.

The TOT phenomenon or TOT state is one everyone has probably experienced.  It usually happens with names.  Let's try one:

Who was that guy who was in the Usual Suspects? (Not Kevin Spacey, the other guy)  Answer after the break.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

March 14 Chronicle of Higher Education Crossword and the Einstellung effect

The recent Chronicle of Higher Ed crossword  by Jacob Stulberg  (Edited by Jeffrey Harris) entitled 'States of Matter' is a great example of a theme puzzle that nicely illustrates the problem solving phenomenon called Einstellung, which is a german word used to indicate getting stuck in a mental set and thus be unable to  solve a problem.

The canonical study about Einstellung was Luchin's water jug problem,
which was featured in Die Hard III:

Subjects in Luchin's studies (who did this in the 1940s, and presumably hadn't seen Die Hard)  first solved several easy problems that got them into the mindset of adding smaller amounts together to fill a larger jug.  So , they put a 1 gallon +  a 2 gallon jug to fill a 4 gallon jug with 3 gallons of water.  The test was something like trying to fill a 5 gallon jug with 4 gallons, given only a 1 gallon and a 2 gallon.  This is the crux of insight-based problems solving, and related to the 'thinking outside the box' problem

What does this have to do with the Chronicle crossword?

(spoilers below)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Interesting clues from March 16 2014 NYT

From the perspective of the psychology memory and knowledge, a hallmark of a great crossword clue is one that is obvious once you see the answer, but difficult or impossible if you see just the clue.    This highlights how our knowledge is both associative and content-addressable.  What this means is that we associate some concepts, words, phrases, etc. with other concepts, words, phrases, but not always in both directions.  A trick constructors use is to look for the second or third meaning of a clue, to send the solver down a garden path.

This week, I saw some great clues that worked like this, at least for me. For example, in Sunday March 16 NYT puzzle called ITS BETTER THIS WAY (by Jeremy Newton), there was: (spoilers below)