Monday 28 July 2014

How to get smarter, and solve problems - Part one

In the movie limitless, a bumbling, forgetful man starts taking a pill that makes him increasingly intelligent.  It plays into the fantasy of intelligence providing some sort of super advantage.
The truth is we all want to get smarter.  But can we do it?  Yes we can!  There is no limit to your intellect, if you work ... so strap in.

Problems come in all shapes and sizes but the truth is there are only certain 'types' of problems.  This post and a following one discuss how to get better at all of them - and ultimately GET SMARTER.

Here are two examples - the first measures 'functional fixedness' and was designed by Duncker and tests how 'in the box' people are.

Problem one: 'functional fixedness'

Using only the pictured objects figure out how to mount the candle on a wall.

Functional fixedness relates to how you view various objects and what they can be used for.  What do you 'see' when you look at his picture?  If you want the answer - you will have to ask in the comments section.

Problem two: 'negative set' problems ('drinking glasses').

Six drinking glasses are lined up in a row.  The first three are full of water, the last three are empty. By handling and moving only one glass, change the arrangement so that no full glass is next to another full one, and no empty glass is next to another empty one.

Negative set problems have to do with the human tendency to only think in terms of one solution strategy. In a sense you get tunnel vision and become unable to see other solution types.  There is a theory that all of life's problems can be broken down into these types of problems (but that is another post!).  Getting smarter, and solving these, will have real benefits in other parts of your life.

You can improve your ability to solve problems and get smarter by doing some very basic things.  So if you want to get better at problem solving read on.

Crystalised and fluid intelligence

Your intellect can be divided up into two domains - crystalised intellect (CI) and fluid intellect (FI). Crystalised intellect is all the stuff you know.  Fluid intelligence is your ability to manipulate the information.

Example:  If I was to ask you to spell a large word that you don't use much but know (such as 'transparent'), you would be using crystallized intelligence.  Basically, the word is in your memory and you just access it.

If I asked you to spell a word you hadn't heard (such as 'coarticulation'), you would spell it based on your knowledge of word sounds, and word spellings.  You would construct it perhaps like this: co- articulate - ion, [then remember to drop the 'e' and add 'ion'].  The point is you use both your knowledge of words (CI) and some thinking (FI) to spell new words.  Young people tend to have better FI and older people better CI.  (Note: young people are better at spelling new words, old people are better at spelling known words)

1.  Improve your world knowledge (Domain knowledge)

Your great advantage as an older learner is this CI.  Build it - keep building it.  The more CI you have the better the problem solver you will be.  This is the number one thing you can do to get smarter.

The way you make sense of the world (and hence learn) is by making connections between it and what you already know.  The more life experience you have, the more connections you can make and the more knowledge you can draw on to make sense of new information.

The more you know about the world, the more you can learn and solve problems through induction or deduction.  You need wide knowledge , that is, knowledge of very diverse things.  The broader your knowledge the better.  Second you need deep knowledge.  Become a specialist and learn everything there is to know about a topic.

A really good place to start would be to learn the '100 words everybody should know' list.  

Otherwise here are two hints:  Read, read and read.  Not only will you increase your world knowledge but you will also experience a multitude of perspectives - you will 'see' the world through different characters eyes.  Click here for the best summary of reading information freely available on the net.

Be curious and interested in things and never stop learning.

2. Automate what you can!

Your FI is limited.  It can only think about so much before it red-lines and starts to break down.  This is called 'excessive memory load' and causes people to fail to solve problems.   But your CI can work all day! That is because when you remember something from the CI it is automatic and therefore puts no load on your FI. So, the second step to being a better problem solver is to move as much information as possible to the CI.

Example:  Solve two problems below in your head.

7 x 8 + 9 x 6 =

6 x 6 + 8 x 8 =

Which one was harder?  If you know all your times-tables, they are about the same.  But if you don't, the top one is much harder.  If you have to work out what 7 x 8 is by adding, then this uses up your FI.  But if you know the tables by heart, you can access the multiplication answers automatically and then use your FI to add them together.

Second, you can memorise the 'rules' also, so that by following procedures you free up your FI to think strategically.

So number 2 is to automate as much information as possible by memorising it.  This frees up the FI to think about other things.  When looking at a problem, work out if memorising any part of a process will help you, and then invest the time in doing this.  It will help.  Click here for the tower of Hanoi challenge to see what I mean.  But do increase the discs to seven at least.  Memorising the pattern will allow you the mental space to monitor your progress and stop you losing track half way through.

Final challenge for today - who is better at the tower problem, you or your children?

That's it for now, tomorrow we cover the really good ones:

  • Use systematic plans
  • Develop sub-goals
  • Draw inferences
  • Work backwards
  • Change the representation

Remember - in the film limitless Bradley Cooper got smart, real smart, by taking a pill.  The truth is, your brain is a learning machine, it doesn't need a pill - it needs you to feed it and learn how to use it.


  1. Problem 1
    Items - Candle, matches, cardboard box of tacks
    Solution - I would break and refold the cardboard box into a shelf and use the tacks to stick it to the wall. Then put my candle on top and light it.

    Problem 2
    I would take the middle full glass and empty half of it into the middle empty glass. This way no full glasses and no empty glasses are beside each other and I only moved 1 glass.

    Interested to hear if there are any other solutions.

  2. Correct on both counts! Far too easy for the likes of you. I'll post some more today.

    Oh, I have never heard of any other way to solve them. Anyone got any other ideas?