Tip of the tongue
When solving these puzzles, you might initially have a strong feeling about whether you know the answer — and these sentiments are likely to be right. Given a mixture of solvable and unsolvable word-association tests, subjects tend to guess correctly which ones they will and won’t be able to answer. In crosswords, says Nickerson, this “feeling of knowing” can be useful. If you are pretty sure you know the answer, you sensibly spend more time trying to get it; if you are certain that you don’t, you move on and try to get intersecting words instead.
Psychologists make a fine distinction between this feeling of knowing and a sense of something being “on the tip of the tongue.” The latter, more irritating state is the feeling that an answer will come soon, rather than that it will come eventually. It is often false, as the phantom of revelation fades away. One theory is that a wrong word retrieved from our memory blocks the way for the right word, an occurrence that Nickerson recognizes in crossword-solving when an initial wrong guess makes it more difficult to find the true solution.
Be careful with the more difficult puzzles: Cryptic crosswords can warp the mind in surprising ways. Michael Lewis of Cardiff University in the United Kingdon came to this conclusion while investigating why results from police lineups are so unreliable. He was following up research showing that face recognition can become temporarily impaired after a person is shown a large alphabetical letter made up of a configuration of smaller, different letters and is asked to read out the smaller letters while ignoring the larger one. This seemingly innocuous preparation, known as a local Navon task, made them much worse at a face recognition test.
Nobody is likely to perform a Navon task before being asked to pick out someone in a lineup, so Lewis looked at more common waiting-room activities: sudoku puzzles, reading a book, literal crosswords and cryptic crosswords. (Cryptic crosswords typically have clues that, when they are read literally, have nothing to do with the answer; each clue must be split into two parts, each of which leads separately toward the answer.) Lewis thought the sudoku puzzles would have the biggest effect; he included the crosswords only as controls. But the subjects tackling the first three types of tasks all achieved roughly the same results in face recognition tests, whereas those wrestling with cryptic clues performed far worse.
Lewis speculates that some form of suppression may play a role. In the Navon task, you must suppress the global picture, and in cryptic crosswords it helps to suppress larger linguistic units and break up phrases to look for hidden wordplay and definitions. As a side effect, that seems to suppress our ability to see a face as a whole unit. The phenomenon goes beyond visual and verbal realms: Navon stimuli also affect wine-tasting ability, says Lewis. “It suggests there is some overlap in processing between all these tasks.”
Crosswords naturally probe connections between ideas and words, and Nickerson suggests that psychologists could make more use of these puzzles when studying cognition. The human mind is itself a fiendish puzzle, so perhaps it’s not surprising that crosswords cast light on its workings.
Battersby is a consultant for New Scientist magazine, which produced this article.