Puzzles can help sharpen the mind and open up new thought processes. Practicing with puzzles every day can help simplify the mind, provide better memory capacity, and improve cognitive abilities. Even challenging puzzles can be solved if you use a few simple techniques.
Part 1 of 4: Learning How Puzzles Work
Step 1. Know the basic types of puzzles
There are two basic types of puzzles: enigma and conundrum. Both are usually made in the form of a dialogue between the questioner (usually also the solution to the puzzle) and the answerer.
- Enigma is formed as a problem using the language of metaphor, allegory, or association, which requires creativity and experience to answer. For example, “When the sun goes down, it becomes a flower garden; but if you see it after dawn, it becomes an empty garden. What's that?" (Answer: sky.)
- Conundrums are asked as questions that incorporate the use of jokes on questions, answers, or both. For example: "What flower can be found between the chin and nose?" (Answer: Tulips/"Two lips" - two lips)
Step 2. Understand the rules of the puzzle
Most of the puzzles touch on very familiar topics. The difficulty usually boils down to how these topics are explained. Riddles usually create association patterns to lead you to the answer.
For example, a popular riddle from J. R. R.'s The Hobbit. Tolkien': "Thirty white horses on a red hill, / They walked, / Then they ran, / Then they were silent." This puzzle uses familiar ideas (horse, hills), to state the answer figuratively (in this example, the answer is “teeth.”)
Step 3. Be aware that the riddles may be trying to trick you
Logical associations may actually be misleading. The real answer may be so obvious that you don't expect it.
- The red herring puzzle is a common type of misdirection by association. An example is in this riddle: “Green people live in green houses. Blue people live in blue houses. The red man lives in the red house. Who lives in the white house?” The direct answer, following the established pattern, is “white people,” but “White House” is a red herring trap: It is the President of the United States who lives in the White House!
- A traditional African riddle goes something like this: “How to eat an elephant?” (Answer: by eating it little by little). This riddle is a good example of an answer hidden in the clear.
- Some “riddles” are not even riddles at all. Take, for example, this traditional Yiddish riddle: “What is hanging on the wall, is green, and can whistle?” The answer is “herring,” because you can hang it on the wall and paint it green. If the herring has just been painted, it will be wet. The joke here is that herrings can't whistle -- so there really isn't a solution to this puzzle, and that's intentional.
Part 2 of 4: Sharpen Your Analytical Skills
Step 1. Solve the puzzle every day
Solving a puzzle requires you to combine what you already know with new information from the puzzle. Just like puzzles, puzzles ask you to use existing knowledge and contextual clues to come up with original answers that are often tricky. Puzzles can help you learn to recognize patterns and orders.
- Puzzle games like Tetris, or traditional board puzzle games, require you to look at a situation in several ways to find the best solution. This process is also useful when you are trying to solve a puzzle.
- Certain types of puzzles and specific games work very well for developing these analytical skills. So, if you do a lot of crossword puzzles, you may be very good at it, but you won't get the same expertise in other areas. It can be useful if you play several types of games rather than just focusing on one type.
Step 2. Alternate your brain games on a regular basis
The more you repeat a certain type of task, the less effort your brain will need to solve it. Playing different types of games will help keep your brain from trying to find shortcuts and being lazy.
Step 3. Try reading and then summarizing something complex
For example, you could read a complex story and then write a short summary stating all the ideas in a few key points. Research shows that doing this will allow you to see the “big thing”, as well as pay attention to the details. This is an ability that will come in handy as you try to solve puzzles.
Rewriting ideas in your own words can also help you develop linguistic flexibility and improve memory. It's easier to remember different ideas if you take the time to rewrite them all, because your brain has to work to structure these ideas for it to understand them all
Part 3 of 4: Practice on the Puzzles You've Mastered
Step 1. Re-learn some well-known riddles
It may be useful to start with a riddle to which you already know the answer. There is a large collection of puzzles online and in books, which you can use to practice.
Step 2. Work in reverse from the solution and try to figure out how the puzzle works
Riddles usually assume that the answer is already known; The fun part of a puzzle is seeing if you can outwit someone by asking something they don't know that they actually know. While the words in the puzzle may be tricky, the solution is usually something familiar.
For example, a well-known enigma in Sophocles' Oedipus the King asks, "What walks on four legs in the morning, on two legs during the day, and on three legs at night?" The answer is “human”: a baby crawls when he is young (morning), walks upright when he is an adult (day), and must use a cane when he is old (night)
Step 3. Start by breaking the puzzle into pieces
In the Oedipus enigma example, the best place to start is with the word “foot,” because this word is repeated throughout the puzzle. What has four legs? What has two legs? What has three legs?
- What has four legs? Many animals have four legs, so animal is a possible answer. Tables and chairs also have four legs and are common, so keep this option as well.
- What has two legs? It seems that the answer choice is humans here, because humans are common and have two legs. Chairs and tables don't have two legs, so maybe not the right answer.
- What has three legs? This is the tricky part. Animals usually do not have three legs, unless one has been cut off. However, if an animal has four legs and for some reason has to lose two legs, it will not be able to grow a third leg. This means we have to think of the third leg as a tool: something that has been added.
- What uses the equipment? Humans are the most familiar answer, so maybe this is the real answer.
Step 4. Think about the actions in the puzzle
We only have one verb here, which is “to walk.” So whatever the solution, we know that the answer can go somewhere.
This may mean that the answer works because something enables it to run (like a car), so don't jump to conclusions just yet. Maintaining an open mind is essential to solving puzzles
Step 5. Consider the rest of the information in the puzzle
This information on the Oedipus enigma is a matter of time. This puzzle gives you “morning,” “afternoon,” and “evening” times to measure when actions take place.
- Since this riddle starts in the morning and ends at night, it is likely that this riddle asks about something that happened in a certain period of time, from the beginning of time to its end.
- Be careful not to think too literally when trying to solve a puzzle. Puzzles are usually always figurative; "noon" doesn't necessarily mean 12 noon, or midday.
Step 6. Combine puzzle actions with your potential solutions
Now, you can begin to narrow down the possible solutions by eliminating the options that you think are unlikely to be the answer.
- Chairs and tables cannot "walk" on their own. This means they may not be the answer you are looking for.
- A person has two legs, and he can "add" his legs using equipment such as walking sticks or crutches, and he can "walk" with his legs. Even if you don't know how to match these legs with the times, “human” seems to be the right answer.
Part 4 of 4: Solving the Puzzle
Step 1. Decide what type of puzzle you are working on
Some puzzles require creative math skills, like this one: “A barrel of water weighs 50 pounds. What do you have to add to make it 35 pounds?” (Answer: a hole).
While the enigma and conundrum usually pose a riddle in the form of a question, the enigma is often a more complex problem, while the conundrum is a simple question
Step 2. Consider the possibilities
With a challenging puzzle, you may have to break it into pieces, as shown in Part 2.
While breaking puzzles into pieces and considering solutions may be difficult or inconvenient at first, you'll get used to it and do it more quickly and easily with practice
Step 3. Don't judge the answer
One of the most important tactics when listening to or reading a riddle is not to jump to conclusions. To solve the puzzle, you must consider either the literal or potential meaning of the words.
For example, this riddle asks: "What gets wetter and wetter as it dries up?" (Answer: a towel). Even if the actions seem contradictory, a towel does dry things out and gets wetter as they do so
Step 4. Practice flexibility in considering answers
Try to think in different ways to interpret the clues given by a riddle. Usually, especially in the enigma, which is often very figurative. This means that the enigma uses words with a literal meaning to denote something that is more metaphorical.
For example, this riddle asks: “What has golden hair and is standing in the corner?” The answer is a broom: “golden hair” is the yellow straw of a traditional straw broom, and the broom will “stand” in the corner of a room when not in use
Step 5. Understand that sometimes puzzles will try to trick you
This is especially true for riddles that are written as if asking for an inappropriate or explicit answer. The possibility of several different answers can make the questioner and answerer laugh.
The purpose of the misleading puzzle is for you to give the most “obvious” (which is usually also the most explicit) answer. For example, there are several ways to answer this riddle: "What word in English ends in the letter K, which means 'sexual intercourse'?" In order to give the “right” answer (“talk”), you must avoid the most common assumptions (“fuck”) and think more flexibly
- Read a lot of riddles. The more familiar you are with how puzzles work in general, the more skilled you will be at solving them.
- Be patient with yourself. The puzzles are designed to be challenging. If you find yourself frustrated trying to solve a difficult puzzle, this doesn't mean you're illogical or stupid.
- Create your own puzzles! Creating your own riddles will help you understand how they work, and give you practice breaking them down into pieces so you can find the answers.