Why Puzzle?

What can solving puzzles tell us about problem solving in general?

 Tyler Barrett

Tyler Barrett has been collecting and solving mechanical puzzles for sixteen years.  He has solved thousands of puzzles and, while teaching his course Creative Problem Solving, he has watched hundreds of students solve many more.  He lives and teaches in Sedona, Arizona.


Many non-puzzlers seem astonished that someone would take on problem solving recreationally.  “Surely you have enough problems to solve in your day to day existence,” they say.  Others banish the idea with a quick “Puzzles?  Too frustrating!”  What are the benefits of attempting to solve puzzles?  What are the by-products of recreational problem solving that can be applied to problem solving in general?


Problems are good

When you listen to how people use the word problem in conversation, you often hear a negative connotation.  Such statements as:  “We don’t want any problems here.  This could be a problem.  That’s your problem.” all seem to say that problems are something to be avoided at all costs.

On the contrary, the successful solutions to problems move both the individual and the culture forward.  Inventions such as the wheel, light bulb and airplane flight all were solutions to problems, and each has contributed mightily to man’s advancement. So why do problems have such a bad reputation?  One answer is that relatively few people have ever been taught even rudimentary problem solving skills.  In our school curriculums it is often stated that the by-product of such classes as science and math will give the student practice in “problem solving skills.”  Rarely are those skills spelled out.  Because problem solving is as much an art as it is a science, it has a hard time finding a home in either curriculum.


Puzzles are Problems

Puzzles are a special sort of problem.  Puzzles have a known solution, whereas most other problems do not.  Puzzles offer a complete problem solving experience from defining the goal, to determining the characteristics of the given, and finally the solution. By observing ourselves and others while we solve puzzles, we can learn about roadblocks to creative problem solving.  As we become aware of these roadblocks, we can practice going around them or avoiding them altogether.  Puzzling, it can be said, is practicing problem solving.  Here then, are a few problem solving roadblocks discovered while puzzling, that can be applied to problem solving in general.

First, let’s look at what makes a puzzle a puzzle.  If a puzzle is immediately solved, then it could be said that the puzzle was not puzzling.  It was a puzzle in name only.  If, however, one worked and worked at it, trying everything that one could think of and still had not discovered the solution, then it can be said that one is “puzzled.”  At this point, one is on the brink of forging onward or giving up.


Giving Up

Many novice puzzlers give up.  They will say to themselves “I have tried everything I can think of, this puzzle is impossible.”  Impossible is an interesting concept.  It is a self-fulfilling prophesy.  If you think that something is impossible, that it can’t be done, how much time and energy will you apply to it?  Probably very little.

What impossible really means in the puzzle context is that you simply haven’t figured out how to get to the solution yet. It does not mean that the puzzle cannot be solved; it means that you don’t know how to solve it.  With puzzles, we have an opportunity to conquer the impossible.  This is a great lesson that children can learn early in life by playing with puzzles.



Another roadblock people experience when puzzled by a puzzle or stuck with some other sort of problem is frustration.  People who are frustrated can be seen pounding on a table top, swearing, stomping their feet, aggressively wadding up paper, throwing things or yelling.  Frustration is a mild form of anger.  As such, it invokes our primitive fight or flight mechanisms.  We no longer are capable of the higher forms of thought necessary for creative problem solving.  When we are frustrated, we need to stop being frustrated in order to proceed.  How do we stop being frustrated?  One way is to stop doing what we were doing when we became frustrated and do something completely different.  Take a walk, listen to some music, pull weeds in the garden, or take a shower. Anything that will change our perspective should work.

Of course, if we can avoid frustration all together it would be better than getting frustrated and then trying to get un-frustrated.  By observing ourselves while we work on puzzles, we can see what we say to ourselves that makes us frustrated.  For it is not the puzzle or problem that makes us frustrated, we make ourselves frustrated.  We do this by saying things like “I feel so stupid, why haven’t I figured this out by now?”  Or “I can’t believe I haven’t solved this yet, I’ve tried everything I can think of.”  Notice how we have shifted our focus from the puzzle or problem to ourselves.  We are now thinking about ourselves instead of the problem.  How are we going to solve the puzzle if we are focusing on ourselves?  Chances are we won’t.  Also we are saying things about ourselves to ourselves that will surely lead to the emotion frustration.  The easiest way to stay away from frustration when working on a problem is to stay focused on the problem and never say the word “I” to yourself.  This simple trick will keep us from making ourselves feel frustrated.  Unfortunately, this simple trick of not saying “I” is not quite so simple.  It takes practice to be able to simultaneously work on a problem and watch what we are saying to ourselves.  A good way to practice is to try to solve puzzles.



Habit can be defined as something that we have done so many times that we can now do it without any conscious thought.  Tying shoelaces is an unconscious habit for most adults.  If you ask them to describe how they do it, they usually won’t be able to say without actually doing it and then describing what they are doing.  The muscles in the fingers seem to remember how, but the mind does not.

Habit makes our lives easier.  If we had to stop and think about every little thing that we do, we would get much less done and be exhausted by the end of the day.  Traveling in a foreign land, where the language, food, and money and are all different from what we are used to can be exhausting.  It is exhausting because we can’t rely on all the habitual activities that we perform without thinking in our normal daily lives.

Habits can be actions, like tying shoelaces or thoughts.  If you think something over and over, it becomes second nature.  After a time, these repeated thoughts can become unconscious and act as assumptions that influence our perceptions and thinking.  Some puzzles take advantage of these unconscious assumptions.  Bill Cutler’s Blockhead takes advantage of the unconscious cultural assumption that to put blocks into a box, they need to be placed in the box one at a time.  The famous “T” puzzle relies on the habitual way we have learned to form a “T”.  There is one horizontal line and one vertical line.  There are no diagonal lines.  In order to solve the “T” puzzle it is necessary to break the no diagonal habit.  This is very difficult for most people, because the no diagonal habit is unconscious.  Trying to solve puzzles gives us practice at recognizing habits and then breaking them.

Habit is the enemy of creative problem solving. Creativity, by definition is doing something that has not been done before.  It is doing something new. Habit is the opposite.  Habit is doing the same thing over and over. When a puzzle or problem is stumping us, it is usually because we are trying the same old things over and over.  To reach a solution, we need to think of something new to try.  We need to be creative.


The Aha! Experience

Many puzzlers enjoy solving puzzles, because they often experience an Aha!  The Aha! Experience happens when a person goes through a major shift in perception to achieve a solution to a problem (puzzle) that they couldn't find until they had this shift.  Often this sudden insight seems to come out of thin air.  It cannot be forced.  When someone experiences this sudden shift in perspective or insight, they may find themselves laughing out loud, throwing their arms in the air triumphantly, exclaiming “Yes!” or just feeling a little more alive.  Of course, there is also all the emotions that accompany accomplishment. 

The intensity of the Aha can be said to correlate directly to the amount of time and energy the puzzler has spent stumped by a particular puzzle.  The longer the time, the greater the energy applied, the greater the Aha!

For most people, the Aha experience is a rarity.  By doing puzzles, one can experience what Archimedes and Einstein must have felt when they made their great breakthroughs. 




This article was first published by G4G7 in Atlanta 2006 in honour of Martin Gardner and recommending his two books of recreational problems designed to invoke the Aha! Experience.  They are aha! Insight and aha! Gotcha. 

G4G7 was the seventh “Gathering for Gardner”.  These meetings have been organised every two years since 1991 in Atlanta by Tom Rodgers.

For more information see < http://www.g4g4.com>


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