The Puzzle Machine or What is a Chicken, Exactly?

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I am a member of Mensa, the high IQ society. I wrote this article for other Mensans, but upon re-reading it, I thought general audiences would enjoy it equally.

Three people go together to a prix fix restaurant. They pay $30 to the maître d’ and go to their table. But the restaurant is having a special: “Three for $25,” so the maître d’ sends a waiter to their table with five $1 bills. On the way to the table the waiter reasons that $5 would be difficult to share among three people so he pockets $2 and gives $1 to each person. Since each person originally paid $10 and got back $1, each ultimately paid $9, totaling $27. The waiter has $2, totaling $29. What happened to the remaining dollar?

Chances are, you stopped reading this article to figure out what happened to the missing dollar — not because you are a member of Mensa, but because you are human. Problem solving seems a particular bent of humans.

Yet we have all heard about the problem solving rat faced with three levers, only one of which when pushed will produce a pellet of food. The rat runs about its cage in a seemingly random pattern until, by accident, it runs over the top of its cage, turns a double flip, and lands on its back on the proper lever. From then on, in order to get its reward, the rat runs over the top of its cage, turns a double flip to land on the lever. When placed in a cage with a new set of levers, the first thing the rat does is run over the top of the new cage, turn a double flip to land on the lever. A lesson learned…

In his delightful animal behavior book King Solomon’s Ring, Konrad Lorenz describes the antics of a nearly blind water shrew in a cage. It shuffled along the path from its nest to the water’s edge in its cage, carefully investigating for several hours each obstacle or turn in the path. Each time it made the trip, it went a bit faster, until it was running full tilt from nest to water in less than fifteen seconds. Lorentz then placed a rock about the size of the shrew in the path. The shrew collided with the rock full speed, got up, recovered its senses, and went back to its nest to recommence memorizing the path in its entirety, shuffling again for several hours from nest to rock to water. In this process, it decided to go over the rock, so that each subsequent pass included a short leap to the top of the rock, and another back to the path. It was as if the collision with the rock had completely erased the shrew’s memory of the original path, so that it had to reestablish the entire path again. Once the shrew was running the new path full tilt in fifteen seconds, including the leap to the top of the rock, Lorenz removed the rock. On the next pass, when the shrew’s leap ended in a crash to the path instead of perched momentarily atop the rock, as before, the shrew went back to the nest, to relearn the entire path, all memory of the way obliterated from its mind. Another lesson learned…

I bought my former spouse a Pontiac Firebird for her birthday. She loved her new car, taking great pride in maintaining it in peak condition. One day the car overheated because the water pump failed. She had it repaired, and that was that. Years later I bought her a white Cadillac Eldorado. One hot Summer day she was driving through the hills with her air conditioner running, and the engine overheated. She stopped at the nearest gas station with a garage and told the mechanic that her water pump had failed. No amount of persuasion on his part could convince her otherwise. Several days later, she had her favorite mechanic replace her perfectly good water pump. In her mind, an overheated engine equated to a broken water pump. Several months after our divorce, she called to tell me that she was having some overheating problems with her car, but that she had the problem in hand. She was having the water pump replaced, she told me. Another lesson learned…

Recent reports out of the medical research community indicate that problem solving may be more significant than just a pleasurable pastime. Researchers have determined a positive correlation between the level of puzzle-solving activity and a delayed onset of dementia or Alzheimer’s in senior citizens. They have not determined a cause and effect relationship, however. This means that while it is possible that a cross-word puzzle a day will keep dementia away, it also is possible that that part of the senior population that enjoys cross-word puzzles is also less likely to suffer early onset of dementia for entirely unrelated reasons. Stay tuned; there may be a lesson to be learned here as well… (In the meantime, somebody get me another puzzle book!)

Mensans are a diverse lot. In fact, about the only thing we have in common with each other is our ability to think outside the box — as a matter of course. Like everyone else, we are driven by our underlying prejudices, and our ability to solve difficult problems is a function not only of our underlying intelligence, but also our experience.

Did you know that several published books purport to enable parents to increase their child’s IQ? Basically, they are puzzle books containing the kind of puzzles typically found on IQ tests. The kids practice and practice and practice. And they work, often to the tune of ten or twenty IQ points.

Does this mean the kid suddenly got smarter?

As measured by the tests: Yes. And if this enhanced ability translates into every-day life so that the kid now can solve real problems better, is this a real increase in intelligence? You tell me…

A non-Mensa acquaintance who was financially quite well off said to me several years ago: “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” This was right after I had returned from a year at the South Pole. Did he have a point, or did he miss the point, or did we both miss it?

Was I any smarter after I had earned my first million three years later? And did I get dumber just before I lost it?

Or did I focus on a problem, and having solved it, moved on.

So how many rich Mensans do you know? Me neither.

How many rich non-Mensans? But then, I know more non-Mensans than Mensans, and besides, several folks I know could be Mensans.

Is there a fundamental difference between asking how many angels can dance on a pin head, and the maximum number of sub-atomic particles allowed by quantum mechanics, or the best time to exercise a put option?

So, what is a chicken, exactly?

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