December 20, 2010

Tracing the Spark of Creative Problem-Solving

brain networks,neuroscience — alice @ 11:59 am Print This Post  AddThis Social Bookmark Button

From: NYTimes.com.

Check out the puzzles in this article. They look easy, and mostly they are. Click here to see the puzzles.
Given three words: trip, house, and goal, for example, find a fourth that will complete a compound word with each. A minute or so of mental trolling (housekeeper, goalkeeper, trip?) is all it usually takes.

The payoff of tackling a mental exercise: leaps of understanding that seem to come out of the blue, without the incremental drudgery of analysis.

But who wants to troll?

Let lightning strike. Let the clues suddenly coalesce in the brain as they do so often for young children solving a riddle. As they must have done, for that matter, in the minds of those early humans who outfoxed nature well before the advent of deduction, abstraction or SAT prep courses. Puzzle-solving is such an ancient, universal practice, scholars say, precisely because it depends on creative insight, on the primitive spark that ignited the first campfires.

And now, modern neuroscientists are beginning to tap its source.

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.

Click here for the entire article

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