When brute-force intellect fails, expand your mind.
Solving problems draws on two types of intelligence: crystal and fluid. Crystal intelligence involves using stored knowledge to answer questions of fact (e.g. what is the speed of light?), which in turn relies on our ability to learn and remember information.
Fluid intelligence involves solving more creative problems, such as how to get a lion, a goat and a cabbage over a river in a single-passenger boat. This kind of intelligence has proven more difficult to get to grips with, partly because solutions tend to pop, fully formed, into consciousness as “aha!” moments, and no amount of introspection reveals the cognitive processes that led to them. It also seems that our brains use different strategies for different types of puzzle.
We tend to work out simple problems – those involving just a few factors – methodically. For example, to solve “If ABC = 123, then DEF = ?” you need to know three things: the alphabet, the number sequence, and the coding technique of linking two sequences in parallel. Once you have this knowledge, you can find the answer by matching letters to their appropriate numbers, without having to look elsewhere for any extra information. In this case, focusing attention on the problem helps you get to the right solution.
Complex problems, on the other hand, require a different approach, because the number of things you need to know and juggle is greater than your conscious brain can cope with. A chess move, for example, can lead to billions of outcomes, and no human brain can think through them all, let alone hold them in mind simultaneously in order to compare them. Inexperienced chess players typically react to the complexity of a chess problem by concentrating hard on working out possible sequences of events. Rather than helping them, however, this intense, narrow attention can make their play worse.
The reason is that focusing attention on sequential computation, which is done by the brain’s left hemisphere, closes down areas of the right hemisphere that are concerned with taking a wider view. Master players, by contrast, use their right hemispheres as well as their left. The right-hemisphere activity produces an intuitive sense of the gist of the problem and provides context for the conscious computations occurring in their left hemisphere. This use of intuition, when honed by years of experience, distinguishes experts from novices not only in chess, but also in every area that requires complex problem-solving.
A 2008 study at the Medical University of Vienna shed further light on how narrow concentration can hinder problem-solving. By monitoring volunteers’ brainwaves as they struggled to solve a word puzzle, the researchers found that intense attention locks the brain into a particular pattern of activity, producing cognitive tunnel vision. Low-level attention, in contrast, allows neural patterns to change, making it easier to incorporate new information. It’s the difference between trying to work out what an object is by staring at it from a single perspective, or ambling around it, receptive to anything that might give guidance.
As well as looking at a problem from multiple angles, brilliant problem-solving involves dismissing bad options quickly, before they can use up limited cognitive resources. This ability has recently been introduced to artificial intelligence, producing machines that for the first time are able to beat the best human players at Go, an ancient Chinese strategy game. This ‘self-learning’ type of AI can rehearse its strategies, note those which don’t work, and feed the information back into the system, tagged with an instruction to avoid them in future. In the human brain, a similar process is executed by an area called the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). This tiny bit of tissue, tucked into the deep fold that divides the two hemispheres, probably did more than any other brain region to make humans the best problem-solvers on Earth. Until now, perhaps.
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Tune up your problem-solving
- Challenge yourself with increasingly complicated problems. Eventually your brain will learn to abandon the fixed-attention strategy it uses for simple problems, and start to look at problems from multiple points of view.
- If you’re stuck on a puzzle, shift attention elsewhere and come back to it later. This turns off the neural firing pattern that is locking the brain into an unsuccessful approach, and allows the brain to incubate the problem, casting around unconsciously for knowledge that might be useful. When you return to the puzzle, this new information is likely to be incorporated into the problem-solving attempt.
- Combine problem-solving with a low-level activity such as walking or jogging. This helps to reduce focused attention because you need to use some of your conscious resources on the activity you’re performing. It also increases blood flow and endorphin release, which perks up brain cells just as it does cells in other parts of the body.
- Brainstorm privately. Complex problems often require left-field solutions, so thinking far and wide, in areas which do not immediately seem relevant, can help broaden your perspective. The dafter the ideas you allow yourself to come up with, the freer your brain will be to stumble upon a solution.