Comfort food

I enjoy doing puzzles, whether they be crossword puzzles, sudoku, ken-ken (a recent addition to The New York TImes’ puzzle page), pretty much anything that requires only a pen and a little time. Challenges in puzzles seem soothing to me, restful, whereas challenges in real life can be very stressful indeed.

I used to think that this difference is due entirely to the “magic circle” effect – the fact that the outcome of a puzzle has no real-word consequences. According to this theory, the puzzler understands that they are in a safe place, and therefore can exercise their brain without fear.

But recently I have come to see another difference, one that might be more fundamental. A crossword or sudoku or ken-ken puzzle, unlike problems in the real world, always has a solution. You know for certain, from the very outset, that the Answer is already in there, hidden within the puzzle itself like the prize in a treasure hunt, simply waiting for you to find it.

I would argue that this might be the salient quality of puzzles that makes them so appealing. We deal every day with the weirdness and downright disturbing nature of reality – arguments with friends and strangers that can seem to come out of nowhere, our nation’s economy taking odd and sometimes ominous turns with little or no warning, wars, hurricanes, unexpected illnesses or even deaths of friends or family members. The entire world can seem like a problem with no solution, a continuing set of difficult questions for which the only answer might very well be “There is no answer”.

But a puzzle’s ability to be solved is guaranteed, even before we put pen to paper, a fact which provides a deep source of comfort. We know that our puzzle had an author, that there is somebody out there, even if it’s somebody we will likely never meet, who is looking out for us. And so we know that in this little artificial world there is indeed always an Answer, unlike the situation we face in the often cruel, capricious and chaotic world of our lives.

So I would argue that it may not be so much the fact that puzzles have no real-world consequences, but rather it is their epistemological appeal – in the world of a puzzle there is always a wise (and for the most part benevolent) Creator – that makes puzzle solving so appealing as comfort food for the mind.

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