Call it the 23-Across Phenomenon

Thursday, May 04, 2006

By Wray Herbert

I, like a lot of people, spend a chunk of most Sunday mornings puzzling over the New York Times crossword, often with friends. Anyone who likes this particular diversion knows that, while you do in fact “puzzle” out some answers painstakingly, many others come in a flash, effortlessly and seemingly out of nowhere. A friend once suggested that some enterprising neuroscientist ought to study our Sunday morning brains, to plumb the mystery of those eureka moments.

Well, scientists have pretty much done that. John Kounios of Drexel University and Mark Jung-Beeman of Northwestern scanned the brains of people as they solved a series of word puzzles--not a crossword precisely, but close enough. Like crossword puzzlers, these people were sometimes methodical but at other times they got the solution in a flash of insight. The scans revealed different patterns of brain activity underlying the different mental strategies. What’s more, it appears from the scans that the brain actually prepares itself for the possibility of an “aha! moment” even before the puzzling begins.

It’s the brain’s temporal lobe, more specifically. Just prior to a flash of insight, the brain momentarily revs up this brain region and dampens down the visual cortex, almost as if the puzzler were closing his eyes to allow the answer to pop into consciousness. It’s as if the puzzler is focusing inwardly, perhaps actively silencing irrelevant thoughts to get ready for the new, less laborious, mode of problem solving.

Kounios, who will publish this study in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, hopes that such insights into creative thinking may someday lead to techniques for comandeering the more inventive parts of our brain for important social purposes. The great medical scientist Louis Pasteur, he reminds us, said that “chance favors only the prepared mind.” Very well. But I for my part will be happy to imagine my temporal lobe clicking in when I beat everyone else to that six-letter answer to 23-across.

By the way, savor those eureka moments, but don’t delude yourself that those hours puzzling over the crossword are going to keep you sharper in your twilight years. In a report just published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, the University of Virginia’s Timothy Salthouse debunks the popular use-it-or-lose-it view of mental aging. He did a series of studies that showed, while the elderly do get better at a particular mental task when they practice it, such cognitive gymnastics have no general long-term benefit. Despite the idea’s intuitive appeal, and the strong desire to believe we can control our own destiny, says Salthouse, the mental-exercise hypothesis is “more an optimistic hope than an empirical reality.” What’s an 11-letter word for bitterly disappointed?

For more insights into human nature, visit the Association for Psychological Science website at

posted by Wray Herbert @ 2:48 PM


At 8:26 PM , Blogger Cassandra_Moderna said...

"Heartbroken" popped into my mind. Was that it? lol

At 2:11 PM , Blogger Wray Herbert said...

"Heartbroken" is good, but "crestfallen" is what I had in mind.


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