Puzzle-Solving is Fun

Our minds are attracted by puzzles—they tickle our brains, dare us to find a solution to a problem. Article by Clara Fernández­-Vara
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GUEST AUTHOR: Clara Fernández­-Vara

For some people, puzzles are completely irresistible; they‘re like a melody that gets stuck in our heads and we cannot shake it off until we have found the solution. This compulsion to solve puzzles is what distinguishes true Mind Gamers, who are driven to resolve any problem they come across. Marcel Danesi calls this “the puzzle instinct” in his book of the same name.

The key to solving a puzzle, says Danesi, is that they generate insight. Insight is the eureka spark, the ‘a-ha moment’, the epiphany when we see the solution to the problem, perfectly clear. It is the moment where we suddenly see the problem in a different light. The moment of insight is where the fun of puzzles resides, because we feel clever – we did it!

As a game designer who has created many puzzles, I can identify perfectly well that moment of insight in a player, because it has a very clear physical manifestation. When a player solves a puzzle, if they are sitting, they bounce a bit on their chair and immediately smile. No matter how old or well educated the player may be, solving a puzzle makes us happy for a brief moment because we have learned something new, we have, in some way, expanded our mind.

Puzzle-solving can feel so good that some of us become addicted to puzzles. In a way, it is the best kind of addiction, because every puzzle we tackle generates new knowledge. Not only do we feel clever – we become more intelligent, one puzzle at a time.

In order to solve a puzzle, we resort to insight thinking, which is the cognitive process by which we analyze pieces of information in order to solve a problem. Insight thinking requires us to see the world in a new way, to question and examine the world constantly – puzzles help train inquisitive minds for everyday life. Robert Stenberg, in his book Beyond IQ: A Triarchic Theory of Human Intelligence, argues that there are different types of insight thinking depending on how we connect different pieces of information in our brain in order to generate new knowledge. These three types of insight thinking are:

  • Selective encoding: This type of insight thinking requires us to realize that there is information that at first may seem irrelevant, but which is key to solving the puzzle. The kinds of puzzles that involve this type of thinking in order to be solved usually put the solution right in front of our nose – we only have to look at the problem in a new way. Optical illusions and hidden images require selective encoding in order to achieve insight, because the image that we have in front of us does not change, what changes is how we are interpreting the visual information, and what aspects of the picture we focus on. Suddenly a duck becomes a rabbit, or a rock in a river turns out to look like a horse. In the case of videogames, “hidden object” games thrive in this kind of thinking. Other examples include acrostics, which encode a secret message by using the first letter of each word in a paragraph.


  • Selective comparison: Analogies allow us to come up with the solution here, because we use a previous way of understanding the world and apply it to another context. Riddles are a typical example of puzzles requiring this kind of insight thinking – they are short poems that describe the object or concept using a metaphor; understanding the concept in a new context will guide us to the solution.

Let us see if you can come up with the solution to this riddle:


They are not literal horses, but something that is white on top of something red, and champs, stamps, and then stops moving. It is using a metaphor to explain something else. If you do not know the solution yet but want to know it, you can go to the bottom of the post for it. The moment of insight will take place once you connect the riddle with its solution. Even if you have to look at the solution, you will experience some insight because you will realize of the connection between the poem and the solution—you will learn something new.

  • Selective combination: This may be the most creative type of insight thinking, and probably the most common, since it involves combining two previously unrelated pieces of information in order to create a new one. Any puzzle that requires us to assemble or combine different types of information will require this type of thinking. Jigsaw puzzles where all the scattered pieces form an image once they are properly assembled or Sudoku puzzles that require arranging a set of numbers following a specific set of constraints are two typical examples. Insight happens incrementally here; the revelations happen in small bouts rather than the little spark that we feel when we solve a riddle.


Some puzzles may require different types of thinking in order to be solved – crosswords have small riddles for each definition (selective comparison), while the whole thing will be solved once all the solutions are filled out (selective combination). Puzzle games are made up of smaller, briefer puzzles that are interconnected, so that we are constantly coming up with solutions through insight, which is fun and pleasurable, and keeps us playing and becoming smarter and smarter. Each puzzle we solve creates a new pieces of information that we can use later, allowing us to tackle more complex problems.

Once we understand how our brain solves puzzles, we can also create puzzles that cater to that kind of thinking and encourage creating certain types of new knowledge. But we will tackle that in a later blog post.

And if you got this far without knowing the solution to the riddle above, here goes: it is the teeth.



Clara Fernández­-Vara is the co­-founder of Fiction Control, a narrative design company, and Associate Arts Professor at the NYU Game Center. She's a game designer and writer as well as an academic, so her work combines scholarship with the creation of narrative games both for research and in the commercial sphere.

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