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.


  1. Sophie on January 28, 2011 at 4:34

    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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SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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