The amygdala, an almond-shaped group of neurons located deep in our brain’s medial temporal lobe, was recently the center of my attention while reading a very interesting book. Stemming from the Greek word for “almond”, the amygdala plays a key role in processing our emotions and is also known as the fear response center. Research shows that the amygdala uses two-thirds of its neurons when looking at negative information and stores that information almost immediately into our long-term memory. On the other hand, positive information needs to be held in awareness for longer than 12 seconds before it can be transferred from our short-term to our long-term memory. Apparently, this is why people quickly forget praise but long remember criticism, causing a kind of negativity bias. According to research by clinical psychologist Rick Hanson,1 the key to changing our lives is to use pain to our advantage.
This is all very interesting, but you might be wondering ‘negativity bias’ has to do with puzzle-based learning? So far, not much, but I will come back to it.
In this time of COVID-19, the world has suddenly changed. Streets are empty and apartments are full; friends are hidden behind their laptop monitors, anxiety is everywhere. Almost all of us are visibly scared of this small, invisible, but deadly virus. Some of us are alone and most are lonesome, experiencing quarantine as prison-like. Zoom time is the only social time we have, provided our Internet connection is stable enough. The sound of knocking on our doors has been replaced by short buzzing sounds coming from our mobile phones. These short alerts that used to irritate us just a few weeks ago, have suddenly become ‘bells of heaven’. Glory, glory hallelujah, someone is thinking about me and sending me a message! Someone is trying to reach me, someone wants to ‘talk’ to me, someone cares enough to message me!
It was one of these short buzzes and a message on WhatsApp that shook me out of my deep thoughts about the amygdala. Since the ‘bells’ were calling me, I glanced at the message, which a friend had sent of a small image with no text, no explanation, and no obvious question, not even a friendly ‘Hi, how are you’ or ‘Here is something fun to look at’. It was obviously something to be solved, because it looked like a logic puzzle. After a brief look, a solution immediately popped into my mind. Thinking it too simple for my unquestionably ‘genius mind’, I fired the answer back to my friend and continued reading about the importance of overcoming ‘negativity bias’.
Soon after, a new message interrupted my thoughts, with only one word — ‘WRONG’ — in caps, emphasizing that I was very wrong. I looked more closely at the puzzle and saw an obvious error in my previous response, so I sent it back, this time for sure, with a correct answer. A moment later another message — ‘not correct’ — popped up. At least this time it was not in capitals! After my third attempt at resolving it and getting yet another — ‘Try again’ — I got upset. In fact, I was more than just upset. I was mad. I was mad at myself for not immediately resolving a ‘simple’ logic and math puzzle, and my inflated ego of believing myself to be a math and logic prodigy was badly hurt. At the same time, I thought that my friend was probably having a blast. I told myself that she was probably having her laugh of the day and was enjoying making me look stupid. My amygdala was collecting and storing negative thoughts and emotions. It was overriding all the positive messages and praise I had received from my friend throughout our many years of friendship.
The puzzle was finally resolved but the negative feelings stayed with me. I was not happy about my silly mistakes, my assumed incompetence, and my blatant lack of basic logic and mathematics skills. My ego was hurt. I hurt myself with my own intense feelings of inadequacy. It dawned on me that I needed to look at the situation rationally, not emotionally. I wanted to try to beat my primeval amygdala programming and turn this ‘negative’ experience into something positive. ‘Men learn little from success, but much from failure’ — an old Arabian proverb came to my mind. I convinced myself that I had failed miserably, and realized that there was some serious learning to do.
Solving puzzles is always an interesting and challenging activity, something that people of all ages love and enjoy. Logic puzzles designed specifically for adults, offer cognitive challenges and force us to think rationally, to apply critical thinking, and to focus our attention and efforts in new, sometimes unexpected ways. Inductive or deductive reasoning, reverse engineering, elimination, ordering, scaling, sorting, and classifying are just some approaches used. When we are in puzzle-solving mode, problem-solving becomes the main target of our brain activity, improving comprehension, allowing us to create different combinations, opening up different ways of looking at things and different possibilities, and forming new brain paths useful for future similar situations.
An interesting study was conducted at the University of Minnesota to assess a puzzles’ effect on the problem-solving ability of students. It was established that students who were introduced to logic puzzles scored significantly higher on exams than those who were not2.
Cognitive development is closely followed by emotional development. In particular, logic puzzle solving helps develop patience, perseverance, and better ways of managing frustrations. Our own persistence and tolerance level for frustrations are improved, we learn how to develop stress coping strategies, and we foster a sense of pride and accomplishment once the puzzle is solved.
Keeping all this in mind and looking at the actual Shoe, Man and Cone puzzle experience, are there any tips that can be generalized and used for future problem or puzzle solving? I believe there are many and the most important ones are listed below.
Logic puzzle and problem-solving tips:
- Develop a good general idea of the problem and the required answer.
- Avoid making assumptions.
- Don’t jump to conclusions.
- Don’t be fooled by apparently simple tasks.
- Appearances can be deceiving.
- Rely on facts.
- Double check available information.
- Pay attention to every fact, word or picture.
- Practice sequencing, a step-by-step approach.
- Pay attention to the smallest details, they might be the most important ones.
- Use your previous knowledge and experience.
- Be patient. If required, take a break and get some rest.
Life is a big puzzle and as in any game puzzle, we need skills and strategies for problem-solving. We sometimes gain these skills the hard way through real-life situations, but we can also prepare ourselves with brain ‘gymnastics’ and mental exercises such as the Shoe, Man and Cone Puzzle, or many others available on the Internet. We should not forget to use every opportunity that comes our way to learn something new.
It was Michelangelo, one of the world’s greatest minds, who at age 87 said “I am still learning”!
- Hanson, R. (2013). Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence. Random House, New York.
- Wilson, E.M., Walker D.R. & Anderson A.A. (1990). Using Logic Puzzles for Critical Thinking. NACTA Journal, March 1990. https://bit.ly/3gETZpb