By Stephen Battersby
TACKLING a crossword can crowd the tip of your tongue. You know that you know the answers to 3 down and 5 across, but the words just won’t come out. Then, when you’ve given up and moved on to another clue, comes blessed relief. The elusive answer suddenly occurs to you, crystal clear.
The processes leading to that flash of insight can illuminate many of the human mind’s curious characteristics. Crosswords can reflect the nature of intuition, hint at the way we retrieve words from our memory, and reveal a surprising connection between puzzle solving and our ability to recognise a human face.
“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 Medford, Massachusetts. In a paper published earlier this year, he brought profession and hobby together by analysing the mental processes of crossword solving (Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, vol 18, p 217).
1 across: “You stinker!” – audible cry that allegedly marked displacement activity (6)
Most of our mental machinations take place pre-consciously, with the results dropping into our conscious minds only after they have been decided elsewhere in the brain. Intuition plays a big role in solving a crossword, Nickerson observes. Indeed, sometimes your pre-conscious mind may be so quick that it produces the goods instantly.
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 the solution. Nickerson points to work in the 1990s by Peter Farvolden at the University of Toronto in Canada, who gave his subjects four-letter fragments of seven-letter target words (as may happen in some crossword layouts, especially in the US, where many words overlap). 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 (Psychological Bulletin, vol 135, p 94).
So if 1 across has you flummoxed, you could leave it and take a nice bath, or better still read a novel. Or just move on to the next clue.
1 down: Sounds like… sounds like Umberto’s (6)
Pre-conscious processing is hidden from us, so it is not clear how the mind sifts through our mental lexicon to answer a clue. As 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 word ending in -eny 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.
2 down: Nearly, nearly all, at the tips of many of solvers’ tongues (6)
When solving these puzzles, you might initially have a strong feeling about whether you know the answer or not – and these intimations 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 – a state that Nickerson recognises in crossword solving when an initial wrong guess makes it more difficult to find the true solution.
3 across: Choose from among various electronics (6)
Be careful with the more difficult puzzles – cryptic crosswords can warp the mind in surprising ways. Michael Lewis of Cardiff University in the UK came to this conclusion while investigating why results from police line-ups are so unreliable. He was following up research showing that face recognition can become temporarily impaired after a task known as the local Navon stimulus. The subject is presented with a large alphabetical letter made up from repetitions of a smaller letter, and is asked to read out the smaller letters while ignoring the larger one. This seemingly innocuous preparation made them much worse at a face recognition test.
Be careful with the more difficult puzzles – cryptic crosswords can warp the mind in surprising ways
Nobody is likely to perform this obscure task before they are called to pick out someone in a line-up, so Lewis decided to look at more common waiting room activities: sudoku puzzles, reading a book, literal crosswords and cryptic crosswords. Lewis thought the sudoku puzzles would have the biggest effect; the crosswords were only there as controls. But the subjects tackling the first three tasks all achieved roughly the same results in face recognition tests, whereas those wrestling with cryptic clues performed far worse (Perception, vol 35, p 1433).
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 they cast light on its workings. Even if that light turns out to be oblique; aslant; indirect; elliptical…
Answers: 1A Eureka, 1D Echoes, 2D Almost, 3A Select
More on these topics:
Having trouble finding the right words to finish your paper? Are your conclusions bland? This handout covers basic techniques for writing stronger endings, including
- Diagnosing and improving paragraph cohesion
- Avoiding 7 common errors when drafting and revising conclusions
- Answering the reader’s unspoken question—“So what?”
Improve paragraph cohesion
A. Make your sentences conform to a “given/new” contract
“Given” information (familiar to your reader) should come first in the sentence. For example, you could reiterate a main idea in the sentence or two beforehand, or something apparent within the context of the sentence, or an idea that taps into readers’ general knowledge of a topic. “New” information (additional, unfamiliar, and/or more complex) should comprise the second half of your sentence.
The “new” info of one sentence then becomes the “given” or familiar info of the next, improving overall flow and coherence.
B. Use “topic-strings”
Each sentence needs a topic or main idea, which should be in the “given” part of the sentence. Shift “given” info closer to the beginnings of your sentences when you can, so that the topic is clear. As well, each paragraph needs an overall topic, usually established in the first or second sentences. To check paragraph coherence, see whether your sentence topics (“givens”) connect consistently from sentence to sentence. Can you find a consistent topic throughout the paragraph, almost as if you were tracing a single colored thread? A set of sentences with clear topics creates a “topic thread.” This, along with appropriate use of transitions, helps to ensure a coherent paragraph.
- If your topic thread is not apparent or seems to get lost, revise your sentences according to a “given/new” information pattern.
- Use transitions where needed to indicate opposition, agreement or linkage, cause & effect, exemplification or illustration, degree, comparison, etc. For more on transitions, see “Making Connections: Choosing Transition Words”.
C. Reiterate without being repetitious
Readers appreciate some consistency and won’t usually find a reasonable amount of repetition boring or monotonous. But avoid repeating the same subjects/topics using exactly the same words each time, and don’t repeat your thesis word-for-word in your conclusion. Instead…reiterate, using key concepts within slightly different sentence structures and arguments. Key concepts are often expressed in introductions, thesis statements, and near the beginnings of paragraphs; they act as a governing “topic thread” for your entire paper.
Avoid these 7 common errors in your conclusions
- Opening with an empty phrase, the equivalent of “throat-clearing.
Draft: “And, therefore, it is important to keep in mind that ...” “In conclusion…”
Revision: Omit these phrases. “In conclusion” or “To conclude” may be appropriate for an oral presentation, but in writing are considered redundant or overly mechanical.
Draft: “However, it is important in arriving at such a conclusion to recognize...”
Revision: Just say what we should recognize.
- Stuffing too much information into one paragraph or not developing the paragraph sufficiently.
- Not including a clear topic sentence: i.e. one that expresses the key concept governing this paragraph (i.e. “What is this paragraph about?”). It’s usually best to express your governing concept in the first or second sentence.
- Not checking for cohesion or flow (see “given and new” above). As a result, the sentences aren’t logically organized, or there is a sudden switch in topic, or sentences do not clearly connect to each other.
- Using transitions too frequently or too mechanically.
- Ending the paragraph with a different topic. HINT: Use a key word or phrase from the last sentence of the previous paragraph in the first sentence of the new paragraph. This technique helps the reader make connections.
- Finishing your piece with entirely new information or a quote that isn’t relevant.
Remember to answer the question "So what?”
Readers need to understand why your argument or research is significant. So consider the single more important idea (key concept) you want your readers to take away with them after reading your paper. It’s not enough merely to repeat your thesis or summarize your main findings in your conclusion; you need to answer the question: “So what”? Options include outlining further areas of inquiry and/or suggesting a sense of significance: e.g. why does what you’ve written matter? What should your reader take away?
For more about writing effective conclusions, visit the following:
“Strategies for Writing a Conclusion” from Literacy Education Online
“Conclusions” from the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina
Source for paragraph cohesion strategies: Williams, J. M., & Nadel, I. B. (2005). Style: 10 Lessons in Clarity and Grace (Cdn. ed.). Toronto: Longman.