The power of mind sports: more than just puzzles

I’ve never really taken my mind sports side very seriously. It is, basically, just doing puzzles. On the one hand, the one I use for “intelligence” competitions, logic puzzles. On the other hand, the one I use for “creative thinking” competitions, thinking up eschatological quantities of utterly useless weird stuff.

But then I was thinking about it. Get someone doing basic creativity puzzles – how many uses can you think of for a “…” (a burst balloon, say) or exponentially better, for “a … and a …” (a burst balloon and an empty honey jar to give a very famous example) so they have to think of uses that somehow combine two things. All just silly fun, getting people good at nothing more than “thinking up eschatological quantities of utterly useless weird stuff.”

medal 2Then show someone say the “3 hat problem”. Which goes like this – I’m sure you all know a version. (To clarify parameters for all my fellow pedants, all people involved can see, and can hear, and can speak. There are only the number of people involved who are specified. All have basic logical skills. The knowledge of the nature of the problem is communicated in some way that has no material impact on the problem). There are three people, each of whom is wearing a single hat. The people are lined up one behind the other and facing the same way so that each can see only the hat or hats of the person in front. They know that there are 2 white hats and one black hat; or two black hats and one white hat. As soon as a person has worked out what colour hat they are wearing they must shout out “eureka.”

The puzzle is this. You are the person in the middle. Do you call out “eureka or not?”

This is what I call creative

This is what I call creative

The answer is very simple, and if you know the problem you will get it instantaneously. If you don’t, then you may be flummoxed for a moment until you think it through. Your thoughts might start – “I can only see one hat. I can’t deduce anything from that. I could be wearing either. At some stage you have the “aha!” moment – the puzzle isn’t just about you. There are two more people involved, both of whom are puzzling too. Sadly, all is lost for the front person. But what about the person at the back. They can see your hat AND the hat of fronty. If the two of you are wearing different colour hats, back person is clueless – they could be wearing either. But if you and fronty are wearing the same, then backstop *knows* they are wearing the other colour, so they shout out.

What that means is this – if back person says “eureka” you know you are wearing the same colour hat as the one you see in front of you. If back person says nothing you *know* that’s because they’re clueless, and they are clueless because you’re wearing the opposite to the person in front. *Either way*, you know which colour you are wearing.

The 3 hat problem is a really fun logic puzzle. But it also teaches a really important idea – the information you have in many situations is more than just what you can observe. It includes what other people can observe, and the inferences they draw from them. Sometimes, other people’s silence can be the key piece that solves a puzzle.

Now do this. Put those two “what to do on a rainy afternoon” fun things together. Ask not about honey jars and balloons but “how many other situations might there be in which the key piece of information is something I can’t know but someone else does, and where I must combine my knowledge with what I can deduce about their knowledge?”

Add to that some flourishes – the celebration of failure, for example, which goes with creative thinking. It doesn’t matter how ridiculous the ideas you generate might be – just get them out there. The more the better – you can come back and evaluate whether they’re daft, useless, or even utterly inaccurate examples, later. Then crowdsource – ask other people to come up with ideas. And then pick each others ideas apart. Move the ones that don’t work to the bottom of the table – without discarding altogether. Maybe someone can build it into something better. Expand, play, modify.

And before you know where you are you will have ended up with some incredibly interesting questions – and you will have figured out exactly what data you need to gather in order to test them – including data you may have completely overlooked had you not come at it this way. Now you can get experimenting.

So, these fun little diversions turn out, when you apply them and do the creative thing – stuff them together – to provide you with the raw materials for an immensely powerful toolkit. Maybe there’s something in them after all.

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