Prodigies and Puzzly Minds

I spend a lot of time here talking about puzzly minds, but I’ve never really defined what I mean by “puzzly mind.” Basically, to me, a puzzly mind is one that enjoys puzzles, one that has a knack for unraveling puzzles that might baffle or deter others.

But defining what makes up a puzzly mind — what qualities, what abilities, that sort of thing — is hard, because there are so many kinds of puzzles in the world, and many of them require different skill sets, even if all of those skill sets still fit under the umbrella of puzzly minds.

For instance, deduction puzzles require different skills than crosswords do, since deduction puzzles usually work off the information given in the puzzle (and extrapolating within that information set), whereas crosswords require you to pull in your own knowledge to solve the clues and fill the grid. There’s obviously some overlap, but they remain quite different forms of puzzle-solving.

And that’s just two types of puzzles. Spot-the-difference puzzles differ from math puzzles, which differ from mechanical puzzles, which differ from strategy puzzles. They all require specific skills, particular solving styles, and oftentimes, an approach tailored to that sort of puzzle.

Even if you’re someone who immerses yourself in the puzzle world, as I do, you’re not necessarily going to be equipped to tackle every form of puzzle. I’m a decent crossword solver, a good hand at brain teasers and logic problems, and quick when it comes to Fill-In-style puzzles, but I’m not the strongest four-in-a-row puzzler, nor am I a deft hand at encryptions.

As it turns out, this is true of minds other than ones found under the “puzzly” umbrella. It applies to child prodigies as well.

Science writer, author, and all-around geek-culture expert Garth Sundem recently wrote about the curious differences between musical prodigies, art prodigies, and math prodigies, and his post revealed some unexpected results.

For instance, math prodigies and music prodigies basically tie when it comes to IQ tests or studies of quantitative reasoning. (Actually, it seems that music prodigies edge out math prodigies when it comes to that sort of pattern recognition!)

They’re also neck-and-neck when it comes to visual spatial skills. But, oddly enough, both groups test AHEAD of art prodigies in that area. Which surprised the heck out of me! You’d think that artists who bring such marvelous works to life would be stronger visual reasoners than musicians and mathematicians.

This applies most strongly to the concept of mentally rotating shapes in their minds.

From Sundem’s post:

The authors write that, “Talented young artists [may] perceive objects differently than less talented young artists and use figurative processes which focus on attention to detailed surface features.” Less talented young artists are trapped in the literal, but it seems that art prodigies are largely unbound by the way things should look. Apparently, when a math prodigy rotates a shape in his or her mind, he or she gets a rotated shape – but when an art prodigy rotates the same shape, he or she gets…Dali!

Just as puzzlers bring different skill sets to bear when cracking their favorite puzzles, prodigies wield different abilities when excelling at various forms of creative expression, be it artistic, musical, or mathematical.

Sundem summed it up nicely when he concluded that “art prodigies can’t visualize shapes with precision and math prodigies are no better than music prodigies at seeing the consequences of numbers.”

And that got me wondering about the brains of some of the puzzlers I know. Do their particular skill sets or interests outside of puzzles reflect on their puzzly strengths and weaknesses?

As you’d expect, there are plenty with majors or strong interests in English (like constructor Brendan Emmett Quigley), history, languages (like constructor Matt Gaffney), and literature in the puzzle biz, particularly crosswords and other word-based puzzles. Several who came from economics, chemistry, or science backgrounds tend to be strong math and deduction solvers.

Crossword constructor and friend of the blog Robin Stears once told me, “If you think about it, math is just one ginormous puzzle that needs to be solved.”

But, again, like Sundem found with the child prodigies, there were some unexpected connections lurking in the data. I know several musicians who enjoy puzzles, and they tend to be strong math solvers as well. (Which supports the test results above that found little statistical difference in quantitative reasoning between math prodigies and music prodigies.)

Obviously, I need to cast a wider net amongst puzzlers to back up my theory, but I suspect these correlations will only strengthen with more input from puzzlers. I wonder what other curious connections are waiting to be found, currently concealed beneath that all-too-convenient umbrella of “puzzly minds.”


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