Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Suspicious of Sudoku

Sharon Wildwind

I’ve always been suspicious of Sudoku. It’s not that I don’t like math puzzles. I quite enjoy figuring out if I have a piece of fabric that is 22 inches by 8.5 inches, can I made a 1-inch zest strip for a quilt that is 36 inches on a side?

But I’m skeptical that filling numbers into squares will be the solution to all of mankind’s ills. Of course, I’m also skeptical that broccoli, flax, or Omega 3 oil will fix everything. Moderate amounts of consistent exercise is another matter. It just may be the solution to a lot that is wrong with the world—if we can get people to do it.

Anyway, back to the current belief that mind-training games can improve memory and prevent dementia and other mental declines. I felt vindicated last week when I read that it just ain’t so.

Fortunately the author of the article, Andrea Kuszewski — a behavior therapist, teacher, researcher, and graphic artist — had some ideas about what might work instead. You can read her Scientific American article here.

Fluid intelligence isn’t facts or data. It’s the ability to learn something new, and use that new knowledge to build on learning the next thing or solving the next problem. Ms. Kuszewski contends that improving and maintaining fluid intelligence depends on seeking novelty, challenging yourself, thinking creatively, doing things the hard way, and networking.

Man, it sounds like writers have a tremendous advantage here.

Seeking novelty does all sorts of good things to the brain: gears up brain chemicals, increases motivation, and causes the brain to build new neurons. Remember that the next time you’re up to your eyebrows in creating a new character, world building, or trying to come up with the strangest murder weapon ever. (My vote on this, so far, goes to Barbara d’Amato. I’ll give you a clue. It was in Hard Christmas.)

Here’s the two reasons that Sukodu and other brain games don’t work. First, they aren’t designed to increase fluid intelligence; they’re designed to teach you how to play the game. Yes, certain areas of the brain get bigger, faster, stronger, etc. while you are learning the game. But as soon as you do learn it—here comes the second problem— those areas shrink back to pre-game size, even if you continue to do the activity. What’s happened here is that as soon as the brain knows how to do something, it puts that something on a back burner in order to free up brain power for something more novel and, therefore, more interesting.

Forget thinking with the right side of your brain. True creativity involves switching back and forth between both sides of your brain and, in essence, getting the two sides to talk to one another. How do you do that? You think both creatively and practically about a problem. It’s what writers call plotting. Mystery writers are fortunate enough to get double and triple whammies because we have to be conscious of how clues, red herrings, forensics, and downright practicality fit together.

Technology is not our friend, particularly when it comes to spelling and grammar checkers and auto-correction programs. I realized this a few days ago when my computer at work was down because of a password problem. While I was waiting for IT to agree that, yes, my login really did exist and, yes, I really was entitled to a password, I had to write a report draft in long-hand. Guess what? There was no spell-checker built into my gel pen. Not only that, but there was no dictionary anywhere in the office.

I finally had to phone someone to verify how to spell several words. To my credit, I did the hard work first. I wrote down a few options for each word and picked the one I thought was most likely correct. I was right on two of them, but wrong on the third. Never could get those -able and -ible words straight.

The point is when you’re using a spell-checker or other technology, learn from your mistakes. Look at the way the word is correctly spelled. Mentally break it down into syllables. Figure out what part of the word you trip over the most. Come up with a mnemonic for how to spell it correctly the next time.

And finally on the how-to-really-develop-brain-power check list is that none of us can do it alone. Save the Internet for factoids that you need in a hurry, like exactly how far is your character going to have to drive to get from Bismarck, North Dakota to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho? (About 13 hours, according to Map Quest. I’ve always wondered if the allow for bathroom breaks when they calculate those times.) I also just learned that Bismarck is the capital of North, not South Dakota.

For the really juicy stuff, like what’s it’s like to work a graveyard shift in a big city police department or does a lawyer have any qualms about defending a person they suspect is guilty, go to the source. Network with real life human beings. Interestingly enough the more a person talks to people who are not like her, the more her brain grows. Get out of your comfort zone. If you want to make your brain think better, put the Sudoku down and go talk to someone who knows a lot about something that you know very little about.

Right now, I’m on my way to talk to someone at the fabric store. I need 222 square inches of fabric to make my zest strip and the piece I have on hand contains only 187 square inches.

For those of you who don’t quilt, a zest strip is a tiny (usually 1/2 to 1 inch) strip of cloth, in a contrasting color, that add “zest” or zing to the colors in the quilt. See you’re smarter already.
Quote for the week:

One should not pursue goals that are easily achieved. One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.
~Albert Einstein


Sandra Parshall said...

So -- is there a secret to Sudoku? Would you please share it with me? :-) I have occasionally gotten one complete puzzle right, but usually I give up in frustration halfway through.

Anonymous said...

Sandra, I'm no help here. I've done one 9 block square; 6 of the numbers were pre-filled; and there was a "Check how you are doing" cheat button. I just kept moving the 3 missing numbers around until the machine said I'd gotten it right.

Beth Groundwater said...

Great post, Sharon, but Sudoku isn't a math puzzle. It's a pattern-matching puzzle, and could be done with any nine symbols, be they letters, diagrams or whatever. So, it doesn't use the language or number-processing parts of your brain, but the spatial/visual/pattern-processing parts.

It's basically constraint-based reasoning--finding enough constraints on a square so only one of the nine possible symbols could be put there.