Games: The puzzle of problem-solving

Why do we pay for wordsearch compilers to conceal words in arrays of letters so that we can rediscover them? Or pay jigsaw manufacturers to saw a (usually pretty) picture into 1,000 pieces just so that we can put them together again?

It is for the same reason a child gets so much glee when she catches you out with a trick questions such as:

Q1: How do you get down from a horse?

Q2: I may have it (3)

Clearly the concealing and finding of clues is fundamental to human nature and people have a deep urge to create and solve puzzles.

This is not a modern phenomenon. Riddles, for example, permeate all cultures. History is riddled with them. The ancients held riddle contests much in the same way as we challenge each other over a pint to such lateral sophistries as:

Q3: What runs fore to aft on one side of a ship and aft to fore on the other side?

Perhaps the most famous classical puzzle of all time is the riddle of the Sphinx as solved by Oedipus.

Q4: What creature moves on all fours in the morning, on two feet at noon and on three toward the setting of the sun?

Why puzzles are engaging is a puzzle in itself. Aristotle puts his classical finger on a couple of important clues. First he opines that a love of riddles reflects the human tendency to make metaphor; second that they teach us something.

Man has evolved to be a problem-solver. Animals - particularly young ones - exercise, in play, skills that they will later use in earnest. Play provides a safe arena where the imperfections in skills such as chasing, scrapping or escaping do not lead to serious consequences. Young children running and clambering over climbing frames are practising their physical skills. Language, jokes and puzzles are merely the mental form of this activity - the intellect at play.

But isn't play for children? Shouldn't we grown-ups obey that spoilsport St Paul and put away childish things?

I think not. The world is perceivable in an infinity of ways and we can only handle it by categorisation. We view it through filters or, as neuropsychologists say, templates. As we age we get more rigid in our mental habits and it becomes increasingly difficult to see things in new ways.

In challenging the rigidity of our conceptual boundaries, puzzles not only rejuvenate and refresh, they also tell us a great deal about how we think and perceive, which is why they are of such crucial interest to educationalists, psychologists, mathematicians, artists - anyone interested in thinking about thinking.

What is it, for example, about the way we think that makes the following so counter-intuitive?

Q5: I know Bill has two children. He has told me that at least one of them is a boy. What are the chances that the other is a girl? - Well?

Solutions

1. You don't: you get down from a duck.

2. Dot.

3. The name of the ship. (Either that or a drunken sailor: probably the one whose use at our hands is so philosophically discussed in the sea shanty.)

4. Man: he walks on all fours as a baby, two legs as a young man, and uses a stick when old.

5. Two in three.

Chris Maslanka will be presenting "Puzzle Panel" - a new series on BBC Radio 4 beginning on Thursday 4 June at 1.30 pm, repeated Sunday 7 June at 11 pm.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
love + sex A new study has revealed the average size - but does that leave men outside the 'normal' range being thought of as 'abnormal'?
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Voices
The Palace of Westminster is falling down, according to John Bercow
voices..says Matthew Norman
Sport
Steve Bruce and Gus Poyet clash
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jake and Dinos Chapman were motivated by revenge to make 'Bring me the Head of Franco Toselli! '
arts + ents Shapero Modern Gallery to show explicit Chapman Brothers film
Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain performing for 'MTV Unplugged' in New York, shortly before his death
music Brett Morgen's 'Cobain: Montage of Heck' debunks many of the myths
Life and Style
life
Sport
Brendan Rodgers
football The Liverpool manager will be the first option after Pep Guardiola
News
Amazon misled consumers about subscription fees, the ASA has ruled
news
Arts and Entertainment
Myanna Buring, Julian Rhind-Tutt and Russell Tovey in 'Banished'
TV Jimmy McGovern tackles 18th-century crime and punishment
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Whitehouse as Herbert
arts + ents
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £40,000: SThree: SThree have recently been awa...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

WORLDbytes: Two-Day Intensive Camera training and Shoot: Saturday 7th & Sunday 8th March

expenses on shoots: WORLDbytes: Volunteering with a media based charity,for a ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 4 Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: A school in Tameside is currently l...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn