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Your brain on puzzles: Insights come with a wider focus of attention.

A fascinating New York Time article on solving puzzles: Why you do it, how you do it, and what’s going on in your brain while you do it.

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.

There are different ways to solve a puzzle: an analytical way of trial and errors and an “insight” or creative way.  Recent neuroimaging studies looked at what happens in the brain of people preparing to solve a puzzle. Results suggest that a particular signature of preparatory activity, one that is strongly correlated with positive moods, can be observed in people’s brains who are more likely to solve puzzles with sudden insight than with trial and error. This signature includes activation in a brain area (the anterior cingulate cortex) active when people widen or narrow their attention:

In this case of insight puzzle-solving, the brain seems to widen its attention, in effect making itself more open to distraction, to weaker connections.[…] This diffuse brain state is not only an intellectual one, open to looser connections between words and concepts.

Comment: The author of the article concludes, “that a distracted brain can be a more insightful one.” However this is not really about being “distracted” but about having a wider focus of attention. Being distracted would mean experiencing intrusive thoughts and feelings that disrupt thinking.  Having a wider focus of attention is still an attentive state but of different quality. It may be close to the state of attention at the core of mindfulness meditation in which one doesn’t let the mind wander randomly (being distracted) but actively monitor and manage one’s attention and mind.

A wider focus of attention may enable you to notice the funny thing happening in this video

Don’t blame yourself if you miss it. You may just be using another type of attention: Selective (or focused) attention.

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  1. Sophie says:

    It’s a great post. Solving a puzzle helps us to learn about problem-solving. It is an invaluable skill that we need to develop in order to help us through the trials we will inevitably encounter in our everyday lives.

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