Why do we find new solutions after a break?

Why does returning to a problem after a short break yield new solutions?
28 April 2023


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Listener Jo asks "Why is it so I can sit with a sudoku until I have no idea what to do next, so I leave it. When I go back to it later I always find new possibilities straight away." James Tytko spoke with the University of Illisnois' Alejandro Lleras...


James - Great question, Jo. When continuously doing the same thing over and over again, our brains become tired and non-responsive. Have you ever experienced when you repeat a word over and over and over, it tends to lose its meaning and you might even get to the point of wondering how it ever seemed like a proper word in the first place? This is called semantic satiation. Alejandro Lleras, Professor in Psychology from the University of Illinois is here to help me explain…

Alejandro - Hi James. One interesting aspect of the ways neuronal activity fails is that it works in a sort of neighborhood manner. If I ask you, for example, to quickly name all the vegetables that you know, you will start strong, and after uttering several vegetable words, you will suddenly find yourself stuck. well before you finish saying all the vegetables you do know. Words that usually would come to mind (like avocado or cucumber) might simply not be there, in your mind, for you to utter.

It's not that you do now know these words, it's that the continual retrieval of the same sort of information from your semantic network is consistently activating all the words that you did manage to say, and this effort gets those concepts, as well as nearby ones "tired", so to speak.

Alejandro - Your brain feels it has exhausted all possible vegetable names because (a) you were doing the same thing over and over again, and (b) these acts of retrieval tired not just the specific instances that you did retrieve, but also some of their nearby neighbors.

If you wait for a while, some of this neighboring neural fatigue will lift. Changing what you are doing will also relieve the fatigue on the goal itself: it will seem easier to re-engage with the task of naming vegetables, if for a few minutes, you do a completely different task.

Alejandro - This is exactly analogous to what is happening with your Sudoku solutions. You keep trying to do the same thing, and activating the same set of (non-working) solutions, which has the effect of basically hiding from you neighboring thoughts or solutions that you could have had otherwise. A break will lift this neuronal fatigue. You will be able to re-engage with full vigor on the task of solving your puzzle, and some of those recently hidden thoughts will be free to enter your awareness, suggesting solutions that you have not tried before. Voila!

James - So, Jo,. When doing the same thing over and over again, neuronal activity can become tired and non-responsive, leading to nearby concepts becoming difficult to reach for. Taking a break and doing a different task can relieve this neuronal fatigue and allow for re-engagement with the original task, potentially bringing to mind solutions that were previously hidden, just like on your Sudoku puzzle!


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