Why Solving Puzzles Is Fun: Q&A with Consciousness Researcher Daniel Bor

The evolutionary link between acquiring good information and survival may have given rise to both consciousness and the pleasure of problem-solving

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Why do people voluntarily spend time struggling with problems like sudoku or crossword puzzles? According to neuroscientist Daniel Bor, a research fellow at the University of Sussex in England and author of the new book The Ravenous Brain: How the New Science of Consciousness Explains Our Insatiable Search for Meaning, it’s because we take great pleasure in pattern-finding. What’s more, that conclusion has big implications for understanding the brain, consciousness and even neurological disorders like autism. We spoke with Bor recently.

Why do you call the brain “ravenous”?
Human brains have an extreme form of consciousness: they’re ravenous for new innovative solutions to problems in the world, ravenous for optimizing our lives, for building pyramids of knowledge. I was trying to capture [the sense of hunger that] extreme forms of consciousness have about searching for knowledge and for understanding.

You posit that evolution selected for organisms that are good information processors, that are able to acquire accurate information about the world in order to guide their behavior.
One view is that of Richard Dawkins, that it’s all about the selfish gene and that organisms are merely temporary carriers of genes. I was arguing that that [perspective] might miss something crucial about the process of evolution, which is that genes capture something. On some level, they capture something about the world that’s accurate and relevant to [their] own survival: there’s an accumulation of knowledge, of implicit information and representation in organisms, but that doesn’t mean all organisms are conscious. It means that by this stage, 4 billion years after [life first arose], most creatures are sophisticated information-processing devices.

So what does that mean for animal consciousness?
Some animals may well be conscious because they have an extra layer in their brains that processes information online. When you get to great apes and humans, we have an extreme form of information processing, which I closely link with consciousness when it gets very sophisticated and extensive.

How do you define consciousness?
In terms of the mind, consciousness is the product of attention, so we can focus only on a small subset of the world that’s most important to us. It isn’t so much about automatic habits, which we are barely conscious of. Instead, it’s about trying to solve novel or complex problems. We have a mental space dedicated to complex problem solving. What makes human consciousness unique is our ravenous appetite for these innovative lessons that help us solve these novel or complex problems.

Consciousness is generated primarily by our most densely connected brain regions and related to the fastest brain waves. Every moment of our waking lives, there’s a hidden war going on between different populations of neurons [for access to it]. The war involves winning support of active [neurons] and taking over the advanced parts of the cortex, and the victorious neuronal populations control what we attend to — and [that is] what we are conscious of.

Do you think we have any choice in consciousness, any free will?
Choice is a huge separate issue. It can at least appear that we have choice. If I’m in a crowded train station, looking for my wife who is wearing red, I can constrain my attention by looking for red [and the parts of the brain that represent red are more likely to win] than any other bits.

Attention in the standard textbooks is divided into two kinds, one is voluntary, where we set some goal, and the other is extrinsic, where something in the environment takes over what we attend to. A looming animal coming straight at us — we wouldn’t have much choice in attending to that.

What made you decide to study neuroscience, rather than philosophy?
As an undergraduate, I studied both philosophy and psychology, mainly neuroscience, as the equivalent of a double major. It was a question of which one to go for. Philosophy I enjoyed for its apparently crisp logic, but it was frustrating because it didn’t seem like it was particularly progressing at the time; it seemed vague and not in touch with current neuroscience, which was very progressive and cutting edge.

[And] at the time I was doing my final exams, my father unfortunately had a stroke. That made it very clear that things that are very intimate to us like our personality or even our very consciousness itself can be impaired or changed by some relatively small brain injury. … And that made me side [with] neuroscience as well.

Because it showed you that consciousness depends specifically on the brain?
It’s just too obvious. Maybe philosophers would say that I’m missing some subtle points.

You also discuss anesthesia and the question of how we can know when someone is conscious.
There are behavioral measures that you can apply, which have drawbacks. There are experiments done giving varying doses of anesthetics and seeing at what point you stop following commands, at what point do your eyes close, which are reasonably useful. … There are other measures that look at brainwaves and when they take on a certain pattern, it is clear that you are not conscious. That’s currently the best way of knowing whether you are truly unconscious.

What about states like coma and minimal consciousness?
There are some people [with brain injuries] that enter a vegetative state and don’t recover and others that eventually make a reasonable recovery. You can look at which bits are needed for recovery — not just which parts, but also how they communicate with each other. It’s increasingly clear that in order to be able to regain reasonable levels of consciousness, you need at least the thalamus, which is like a relay center in the middle of the brain, and a reasonably intact prefrontal cortex and the back part of the parietal lobe. Those regions map very closely to studies looking at how consciousness changes [under anesthesia]. … It’s the thalamus and prefrontal parietal networks that tend to be activated [during consciousness].

So when those regions are offline, you are unconscious?
It depends on how you define offline. [We don’t know] exactly what mechanism turns [consciousness off, and these regions aren’t simply inactive during unconsciousness]. The prefrontal cortex gets locked into a very tight rhythm with the thalamus, and such tight connection blocks out all communication with the rest of brain; that shuts out long range communication and consciousness as well.

You also write about neurological and psychiatric conditions that can alter consciousness, and suggest that autistic people might actually have more consciousness than others.
Autism is one of those odd-one-out conditions in the literature. The classical assumption was that most severely autistic children are mentally disabled and have low IQs, but that’s partly because they weren’t tested properly. If you test them on nonverbal IQ, they are normal or slightly better than normal. On other tests, they perform better than average for perceptual tasks. Some people are now suggesting that maybe it isn’t a deficit, that they have a different kind of [brain that has certain] advantages. With Asperger’s, which probably many prominent scientists have, whether they are diagnosed or not, it seems almost as if they have extra consciousness: they are better able to process information than normal, which I think is a fascinating idea.

The whole idea that autism is [primarily] a social disorder, I don’t think that theory is going to last into the next decade because there is increasingly successful treatment that centers on socializing that has turned very withdrawn children into very affectionate socially aware children: I don’t see that as fundamental [to autism].

Do you support the “intense world” theory of autism, which suggests that problems result from sensory overload?
I just think [the social issues] are a side effect of the way [people with autism] approach the world. They are searching for patterns and structure in the world — what they obsess over isn’t everything; it’s mainly structures, stuff like calendars and mathematical patterns.

I worked with the prodigy, Daniel Tammet. [Tammet holds the European record for memorizing the 22,514 digits in pi.] He seemed very extremely autistic as kid and has been officially diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, but if you meet him, he’s very socially aware. He maintains eye contact. He decided in his teen years to teach himself [to be social and he did].

In what context did you work with Tammet?
We did a brain scan study [where we looked at his brain after he had memorized short sequences of numbers that were either patterned or random]. It was very striking compared to normal people. He completely failed to spot the external structure [in the nonrandom numbers] and his brain activation was very different from those who were aware of the structure. I make the claim that the prefrontal parietal network is important for consciousness; in my study, the prefrontal parietal network was most active when spotting these patterns and maybe that means a lot about what consciousness is for. For Daniel Tammet, his prefrontal parietal network didn’t activate for these sequences because he didn’t spot them, but it was generally raised compared to those of normal people.

So what do you think the purpose of consciousness is?
I think the purpose of it is to draw all the relevant information together in a larger space. It’s almost as if we can’t spot it because we are doing it all the time. Why do we love crossword puzzles and why are people addicted to sudoku? That’s what a huge bit of the cortex is primed to do — to spot [patterns] — and once we spot them we can assimilate them into our pyramid of knowledge and build more layers of strategy, and knowing how to do that makes us incredibly successful at controlling the world.

And that’s why solving puzzles or finding a useful bit of information feels so good?
We get streams of pleasure when we find something that can really help us understand some deep pattern. Sudoku isn’t the most [fun activity], but it sure feels good when you put in that last number. It’s why scientists love doing research. The way I approach my job, it’s like trying to solve a really big fuzzy crossword puzzle and when you do put in that new clue and see the deeper pattern, that’s incredibly pleasurable.

If our brains are hungry for information, then why do we tend to see learning as a chore and fail to recognize it as a huge source of pleasure?
I don’t know. Obviously, more intelligent people get more pleasure from spotting these patterns, but I think almost every normal person does this. I think it’s a pretty pervasive thing but it’s almost as if we can’t notice it because it’s so pervasive.

See more of Healthland’s ‘Mind Reading’ series.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.