Are cryptic crosswords really ‘better than sex’?

Kathryn Friedlander explores the ‘kick’ we get from cracking a really good cryptic crossword clue.

A number of stories in the press earlier this year reported work carried out in Vienna and London on solving puzzles in a brain scanner. The study suggested that solving a clue to a puzzle can trigger a highly rewarding ‘Aha!’ (or ‘Eureka!’) insight moment, which releases dopamine into the brain. This is the reward chemical associated with daily activities such as eating, winning money … and having sex. This led to headlines promising that cryptic crosswords were ‘better than sex’… but what’s the reality behind the hype?

The study reported in the Daily Mail wasn’t actually about cryptic crosswords, as it turns out. The researchers recorded 29 participants in an fMRI scanner while they solved ‘Remote Associates Task’ (RAT) problems.This is a puzzle format in which participants are given three words (such as ‘stick’, ‘reading’ and ‘service’) and asked to find a linking word – in this case, ‘lip’. Study co-author Professor Bhattacharya reported that ‘the hub of the brain’s reward system, the nucleus accumbens, ‘lit up’ with increased activation’ when problems were solved with a strong ‘Aha!’ experience. The authors went on to suggest that the experience might even be ‘better than sex’.

Male crossword solver

Psychologists have studied the ‘insight moment’ for many years: it’s an elusive and intriguing aspect of human thinking which is instantly recognizable, but as yet poorly understood. Four characteristic components are thought to be involved: suddenness, surprise, happiness, and certainty that the solution is correct. This feeling has been reported at moments of great scientific discovery, but in  order to invoke Aha! moments in the lab, puzzles such as RAT, anagrams and rebus are often used.

penny-1193447_1920Although the fMRI study didn’t actually use crossword clues in the scanner, it’s not too fanciful to draw parallels between RAT puzzles and the solving of crosswords – and in particular those of a ‘cryptic’ nature. After all, RAT puzzles pose similar challenges to crossword definitions, in that both problems require the solver to search their memory for a synonym or associated word. And our previous study of cryptic crossword solvers found that solvers rated the ‘Aha!’ or ‘Penny-Drop Moment’ (PDM) as the key motivational factor for solving this kind of puzzle.

In fact, our recently published study of cryptic crossword mechanisms explores just how these puzzles invoke the ‘insight moment’ so reliably. Key to the tripping of the insight moment is the extent to which cryptic crosswords misdirect the solver in the clue by laying deliberate red herrings. Take the following clue, for example:

Scrub the cooker top and clean out (6)

An unwary solver might well be hoodwinked by the domestic setting of the surface reading – but this is a false lead. In fact, the answer is ‘CANCEL’ (= ‘Scrub’), and the rest of the clue is actually telling you to take the ‘top’ of cooker (=C) with the letters ‘CLEAN’ and then to anagram them (‘OUT’).

question-mark-2492009_1920Crosswords therefore hijack our experience as life-long readers to persuade us to read the clue as standard text. In fact, the normal rules of reading should actually be temporarily suspended, and the clue is simply a vehicle for the intellectual code-cracking demands of the puzzle. As solvers, we have to back-track and revise our understanding of how the clue works, in a process known as ‘Representational Change’ – and this process is key to a wide range of insight puzzles.

One of the advantages in using cryptic crossword puzzles to study insight is that within one puzzle there is a compendium of different puzzle devices – whether these are joke type riddles such as:

Discovered why electrical equipment was dangerous? (9)

…double-definition ‘RAT-style’ puzzles such as:

Tea shop (5)

or even rebus-type clues such as:

GEGS (9,4)

(Answers at the end of the article if you are struggling!)

In our study we suggest that we could take advantage of the range of cryptic crossword devices to explore the mechanics of insight in more depth. Looking at expert cryptic crossword solvers – who speedily overcome the clue misdirection – and comparing them with typical, everyday solvers of equal experience may also give us further understanding of the kind of person who can overcome a solving ‘hitch’ more easily, and how they go about it.

So finally – are crosswords in fact better than sex? Perhaps we’d better leave the last word to the cryptics themselves:

Rampantly sexy, without a kiss? Absolutely! (3)

Face White Thinking Work Man Black Eyes Thinking

Answers to clues (for unattributed clues, see attributions in our article):

Discovered why electrical equipment was dangerous? (9)

Answer: UNEARTHED (a pun)

Tea shop (5)

Answer: GRASS (tea = marijuana = ‘grass’; shop = ‘betray to police’ = ‘grass’)

GEGS (9,4)

Answer: SCRAMBLED EGGS (i.e. GEGS needs to be anagrammed to get the answer)

Rampantly sexy, without a kiss? Absolutely! (3)

Answer: YES (Sexy, minus x (‘without a kiss’) anagrammed (‘rampantly’) leading to definition ‘Absolutely!’). Denise Sutherland.

Image credits (all listed as free for reuse):

Glasses on a crossword:

Man solving crossword:

Penny dropping:

Light bulb question-mark:

Man in deep thought:


11 thoughts on “Are cryptic crosswords really ‘better than sex’?

    • Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment.

      Yes, we discuss Koestler’s work and the concept of bisociation in the full article here: There’s a rich history of discussion about ‘Incongruity-Resolution’ in linguistic humour studies, which were running along in parallel to psychological studies. We tried in our article to pull the two traditions together, by equating ‘Representational Change Theory’ (from Psychology) to ‘Incongruity-Resolution’ (from linguistics).


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