A.J. Jacobs on Puzzles


Uri: I'm delighted to be here today with AJ Jacobs, author of The Puzzler, a fantastic new book about puzzling in all its forms -- crosswords, jigsaws, mazes and more -- and also about the meaning of life. So, I thought I'd ask A.J. some things that have been puzzling me lately. A.J., what goes on four legs in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?

A.J.: I do happen to know that classic riddle — traditionally it’s a human. In the morning of life there’s a baby crawling around, in the afternoon there's an adult on two legs, in the evening you have a cane as well.

But I have heard alternate answers, and I’m a big fan of alternative answers. When I was a teenager, my friend said you could take a dog and chop off two legs and glue back one. As an animal welfare advocate, I’m don’t approve, but it’s an interesting possibility. Also I’ve heard the argument that four-legged hand-held walkers are more popular than canes, so it would actually be six legs in the evening. So there’s no easy answer.

Legend has it that the riddle was posed by the Sphinx to travelers, and if they got the riddle wrong she would kill them. But when Oedipus answered the riddle correctly, the Sphinx was so distraught that she threw herself over a cliff. Which seems like one of the great over-reactions in puzzle history; she needed some cognitive behavioural therapy.

Uri: That’s great. Another puzzle for you: how do I make peace with the finitude of life? I mean, really make peace with it? A lot of the time I feel like I'm just playing out the clock. And that feels insane, when you only have one innings.

AJ: I’m not sure that I ever will make peace with the fi-ni-tude — how do you pronounce it? — finitude of life. Maybe “make peace” is not the right phrase: Perhaps the key is learning to live with the discomfort. I’ll never feel comfortable with my impending demise, but I have to accept that feeling. I’m not happy with the way the laws of the universe were set up, but I can’t control them.

One strategy I find helpful is to contemplate what the world looks like long after I’m gone. That takes the pressure off: it’s not all about me. If the human species continues for as long as the average mammalian species – and granted, that’s a big if – then we’re in the infancy of humanity. There are billions or trillions of people to come. And that makes me feel better.

I also like the early Jewish way of looking at it. In early Judaism, there’s no immortality of the soul, just immortality through your descendants.

Uri: In the book you mention the Sleeping Beauty problem, which seems relevant here — can you tell us a little about that?

AJ: I think puzzles are great because they cover every topic under the sun. And one of the topics they cover is the future of humanity, where we fall in the history of the universe, the anthropic principle. Are we early on, are we in the middle, are we late? That's one interpretation of what the Sleeping Beauty problem is about. There’s been hundreds of philosophy papers about this puzzle — I won’t even try to explain it, but if you google it and start reading them, it is a terrifying and nerdy rabbit hole. Or wormhole, I suppose.

Just be prepared to have your mind twisted; it drove me a little crazy, but I’ve talked to others who have really had their lives affected. As in it caused them to stare at a wall, thinking, for months. It reminds me of the Monty Python sketch about the joke so funny you’ll die from laughing. Or maybe it’s like Roko’s Basilik. Even uttering it is dangerous and could drive you insane.

Uri: That's great, we like to drive our readers insane.

Here's a crossword clue for you to solve, from the great Erik Agard: Pool noodles? (8)

AJ: Well, Erik is very clever so obviously it’s not going to be the first thing it seems to be, the long styrofoam floaters for swimming. I’m thinking about the many meanings of pool and the many meanings of noodle: the “Noodle” one I’m guessing is brain, because that just seems like something he might do, but I don’t know what to do with pool. There’s Uber pool? Pooling of water, the game pool? It could be billiards? Some strategy that billiards players use?

Here’s my excuse: part of what I advocate in the book is that there’s no shame in not-solving puzzles. You should embrace the journey between the question mark and exclamation point. It’s okay to enjoy thinking about it and never solve it.

Uri: That's very mature. The answer is mind meld: "noodle" is the brain, like you said, and pool is the verb, like we pooled our resources, so pooling your noodles is a mind-meld.

AJ: I love that. I guess I didn’t have a mind meld with Erik Agard on that clue, but I still love it.

Uri: While we're on crosswords, Neil Postman was pretty strongly against them -- his claim was basically that the invention of the telegraph and photograph replaced useful local knowledge with a huge supply of useless, decontextualised facts, and that in order to find something to do with those facts we invented crossword puzzles and trivia games. "Amusing oursevelves to death," as he put it. What do you say to Postman?

AJ: I’d like him to read the book, though I fear he’s no longer alive. But I think it’s very poetic to have all of these different, wildly different concepts and nouns and adjectives all squished into one place. You don’t expect Alex Rodriguez to be next to microbiology which is next to Don Quijote. It’s just a wonderful mishmash showing how wide and varied our world is. That is one answer I’d have to Neil Postman -- it does give you an insight into how wide and weird our world is. (I’m a fan! I just do think he underestimates the benefit of puzzles).

Uri: I'm sure he would have been a fan of yours, too ... Ok, how about this puzzle: William Butler Yeats was in love with Maud Gonne for most of his life — he proposed to her at least five times (and weirdly to her daughter once as well). And once, in Paris, ten years after they met, they slept together. And after that he wrote to a friend: "the tragedy of sexual intercourse is the perpetual virginity of the soul.” By which he meant, I think, that the sex didn’t actually make him feel closer to her, that he was wrestling with this ultimate loneliness running through all human experience, an inability to ever truly bridge the gap between two distinct minds. And my question to you, is: isn’t that the tragedy, not just of sexual intercourse, but of everything? Can two human beings ever really pool their noodles?

AJ: I love the question, and my heart breaks for William Butler Yeats. And what could he have done, with proper CBT, to make that work. But that is a tough one, even harder than an Erik Agard clue.

I agree with the premise that we can never get inside someone else’s mind. Maybe with psychedelics or meditation we can experience some sort of cosmic consciousness, but in general we’re stuck in our own little observatory.

I accept the premise, and yet I don’t think we should dwell on it. Because it’s just not healthy or useful. I’m sure there are sociopaths with a sort of Truman Show delusion, who think nobody else has consciousness, that they’re the only ones in the universe, and everything else is there to amuse them. But assuming that other people have consciousness, you can try to make that connection – and you can make progress. It’s all in the trying. And I will say, since I’m a puzzle evangelist: I do think one of the advantages of puzzles is that they teach you to see the world from another point of view.

One classic technique for puzzles is to put yourself in the mind of the setter. You are having a mind-meld with a puzzle maker. Especially when it’s an old one. I solved this 150 year old puzzle – it was a rebus by the most famous puzzle creator of the 19th century. When I solved it, I had this wonderful feeling of connecting with his mind across the decades.

There’s another way that puzzles help you see the world from another perspective. Some of my favourite puzzles are logic puzzles where you have to step inside the mind of the characters in the puzzle. This one puzzle – which has been called the hardest logic puzzle ever – involves brown-eyed and blue-eyed people on an island. The only way to solve it is to get inside the mind of one of the characters. What is the brown-eyed person thinking? Then, it gets more complicated: What is the brown eyed person thinking about what the blue eyed person is thinking? It relates to game theory.

So maybe Yeats should have been doing more logic puzzles, and I could have provided him with some lovely ones. You’ll never experience consciousness from another person’s point of view, but you can try. And he probably helped people experience consciousness from another point of view with his poetry. He’s selling himself short!

Uri: That's great. By the way, you’ve mentioned Cognitive Behavioural Therapy a couple of times now -- can you say a little more about that?

AJ: I’m a big fan of CBT, I’ve been doing it for many years, and I do see a big connection to puzzles: in this case the puzzle is “how do I make myself less miserable?”

I have a list of 20 strategies I try to remind myself, and I look at that list every day.

One thing I love about puzzles is that a good puzzler will try ten different strategies to solve a puzzle: they’ll turn it upside down, spin it round, try it backwards, whatever. And CBT is similar: some of the strategies will work sometimes, some of them will work other times.

As for strategies, I’m a big fan of Memento Mori: life has finitude. Another strategy I like relates to the Yeats quote: I remind myself there are billions of minds out there, it’s not just me. Another strategy is to actively try to notice the thousands of things that go right every day, instead of focusing on the three or four that go wrong. That was the premise of my previous book, Thanks A Thousand.

Another strategy: in my bathroom there’s a post it note that says “Talk”, because a strategy I’ve been using in the last few weeks is to talk out loud to myself, and if I say something out loud to myself I can think “that’s distorted” or “that’s not a useful thought.”

Generally, I do think CBT is the puzzle of our mind and how we solve it. And there’s no one solution to that one.

Uri: Yes right, the greatest puzzle of all.

I'm not really sure how this is related, but somehow it feels so to me – do you have any theories of why we give more puzzles to kids? I don't know if this is really true, but on some level I associate puzzling with childhood.

AJ: This is a guess. But I suppose kids are really good at fluid thinking, at flexible cognition, and that is the heart of puzzling. And that is why I think adults should keep puzzling, because it’s really good for your brain -- there’s some evidence that it does stave off dementia. But what I think is unique to puzzles is how good they are for training us to be flexible thinkers. And I do think that spills over into life.

My friend who is into psychedelics talks about the metaphor of a snow-covered mountain; psychedelics are a good way to fill in the old tracks that you were getting stuck in, to get a new coat of snow. Puzzles similarly are a good way to get a new coat of snow and a new way of looking at the world.

The other thing: I think “puzzle” is such a big word that encompasses so many types of phenomena. Yes adults don’t do as many pencil mazes or riddles, but mystery novels are puzzles; if you continue to play chess, chess is basically two puzzles competing -- you have your puzzle and the other person has their puzzle and the puzzles are always changing.

Qunicy Jones has said: “I don’t have problems, I have puzzles.” Once you’ve got the fresh coat of snow, you’ve got to come up with innovative solutions. Like our friend Spencer Greenberg says, there’s no perfect solution but don’t say there’s no solutions. Being a puzzler helps you come up with a hundred different solutions, and then there’s the meta puzzle of which of those solutions is good.

I have other practices I do, like every morning I spend 15 minutes just brainstorming ideas, just taking a concept and playing with it. I’ll just be looking at a snowman and thinking “what about X, what about Y, what about a snowman with a vape”. Which I’ll probably never use, but keeps my mind more nimble than it would be.

Uri: So I secretly agree with you, but if I were to give a critique of this view, it would be tht puzzles are misleading because they let us solve specific problems while imagining we're solving general ones -- A Literal Banana has made this claim about social science research, that it’s often doing a kind of bait-and-switch where a really specific finding is claimed to represent a much broader abstraction. And I wonder if a similar claim could be made for puzzles: that they’re necessarily specific, but pretending to be general.

AJ: I have two answers. Whatever the puzzle is, the values they’re encouraging is curiosity and experimentation. I don’t think you need a randomised control trial to show that curiosity is one of the great emotions: it’s how we got the wheel, fire, and the mRNA vaccine, etc. (You could argue that Gain of Function research is the bad side of curiosity). Puzzles encourage that no matter how specific they are.

The other answer would be that puzzles teach you different strategies of thinking that can be generalisaable. Some of my favourite puzzles are where you literally have to turn things upside down, or metaphorically think the opposite of your original inclination.

And I can see ideas in the world that use this type of thinking. Whether it’s more literal, like the Heinz ketchup bottle -- you used to have the spout at the top, and you had to turn it over and hit it, but now you have the spout at the bottom, and it’s a much better system, because you don’t have to wait! Or more metaphorical, like the assembly line: Henry Ford was taking an idea and turning it on its head: instead of the workers moving to the object, the object moves to the worker, and that had mostly good effects.

So, puzzles teach you strategies, that the very specific will not translate but maybe the strategies do.

Uri: That’s great. Moving on: another great part of your book is your exploration (literally and metaphorically, har har) of mazes, WHICH ARE DIFFERENT FROM LABYRINTHS, I don’t need to mention that of course, only a fool would confuse the two. I can’t really give you a maze to solve, here, but maybe you can tell us a little about what you think we can learn from mazes?

AJ: Yes, I loved my adventure going to the Great Vermont Corn Maze.  The guy who designs the maze watches from on high as people try to solve the maze. He says it’s a crash course in human nature. For instance, people – especially young men - often go down some path, turn around, and then do the exact same thing again. They’re so convinced that they’ve got the right answer, they won’t accept the evidence to the contrary.

That to me is cognitive inflexibility, and we see it in the world all the time. For instance, one of the worst cases of cognitive inflexibility is QAnon: they have this thesis that Democrats are paedophilic cannibals or cannibalistic pedophiles or whatever, and whatever evidence they see they distort to support that.

Uri: That’s great.

AJ, what am I going to do with my life? Once you start going down a certain path it’s so, so hard to turn around. On an emotional level it means admitting that you went wrong -- right? And even though you know that the alternative is persisting down a wrong path, and living a life that feels wrong for you, for the rest of your life…  all that happens slowly, over so many years, and changing path means admitting you were wrong right now, all at once.

AJ: First of all, you are doing a good thing already. I love The Browser. I love giraffes, and I love high-quality, thought-provoking information.

Second, I think as a society we need to reward people when they admit they were wrong. It should be a badge of honor, a sign of intelligence. Maybe there could be a leaderboard on an app for people who have been most honest about being wrong.

Uri: Aw, well, we really appreciate that. Cecily Giraffe is a big fan of yours, too.

Ok, another question for you. Why did the chicken cross the road?

AJ: I could write a book about that, since there are so many answers. You could answer it from a deterministic point of view – taking into account the chicken’s DNA and upbringing, and how it didn’t have a choice but to cross the road. That’s just for starters.

Uri: I'm glad you bring up determinsim, becuse: what if life is just meaningless? An anti-joke? In the book you mention a misprinted Spot The Difference puzzle in the Baltimore Sun, and say that in your darker moments you wonder if it’s

the perfect metaphor for life: what if I spend the next 30 years looking for the meaning of existence only to discover on my deathbed that the universe is a juvenile prank. Oops, sorry, forgot to mention, there is no meaning at all!

So, what if the puzzle we’re trying to solve doesn’t have a solution, or the answer is just unsatisfying? Where does that leave us?

AJ: My answer may sound a little flippant, but I believe it deeply: The meaning is in the search for meaning. To me, we may never find it, but we have to embrace the search, that arrow between the question mark and the exclamation point.

Uri: Well, what a great note to end on – A.J., where can we find your work?

AJ: Thanks! You can find me at https://ajjacobs.com/, or visit https://thepuzzlerbook.com/ – there's a $10,000 Puzzler Hunt there as well!


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