“What’s fascinating about a crossword is that it involves many aspects of cognition that we normally study piecemeal, such as memory search and problem-solving, all rolled into one ball,” says Raymond Nickerson, a psychologist at Tufts University. In a paper published last year, he analyzed the mental processes of crossword-solving.
Most of our mental machinations take place subconsciously, or pre-consciously, with the results dropping into our conscious minds only after the answers to clues have been decided elsewhere.
At other times, you might need to take a more methodical approach and consider possible solutions one by one, perhaps listing synonyms of a word in the clue.
Even if your list doesn’t seem to make much sense, it might reflect the way your pre-conscious mind is homing in on a solution. Nickerson points to work in the 1990s by Peter Farvolden at the University of Toronto, who gave his subjects four-letter fragments of seven-letter target words. While his volunteers attempted to work out the target, they were asked to give any other word that occurred to them in the meantime. The words tended to be associated in meaning with the eventual answer, hinting that the pre-conscious mind solves a problem in steps.
Should your powers of deduction fail you, it may help to let your mind chew over the clue while your conscious attention is elsewhere. Studies back up our everyday experience that a period of incubation can lead you to the eventual “aha” moment. Don’t switch off entirely, though. For verbal problems, a break from the clue seems to be more fruitful if you occupy yourself with another task, such as drawing a picture or reading.
Thinking out loud
Pre-conscious processing is hidden from us, so it is not clear how the mind sifts through things to answer a clue. Because written language is only a recent reflection of the long-evolved spoken word, Nickerson suspects that sounds are important. He illustrates this with a simple puzzle: Quickly think of four-letter words ending in -any, -iny, -ony, -uny and -eny. (When you’ve done it, read on.)
You probably had little trouble with the first four but may have struggled with the last one. Nickerson thinks that is because the only common four-letter word ending in -eny (deny)
has a different pattern of stress from the natural way of reading the three-letter fragment. Research supports this idea, showing that a three-letter syllable forms a more effective clue than three other consecutive letters. So our mental dictionary is not just alphabetical but also phonological. In which case, it may help to say the clue or your guesses out loud.