Remembering this, let’s practice these skills on the following riddle. “A man hears his name spoken and is immediately taken away by two other men. Sometime later, the man dies under the care of others. What has happened to this man?”
Separately, all of these facts seem rather ordinary, but put together, they do seem a little odd. Where do the men take this man, and why do they do it only after he hears his name spoken? Does he hear anything else or just his name, and who says it? Most curiously, why does he die later, and what does it mean to say that he died under “the care of others”?
Because we already know this is a context-style riddle, let’s assume that everything we’ve been told is in fact very ordinary and routine, if we only understand the context it occurs inside.
Can you imagine a scenario where your name would be formally and significantly spoken out loud? Perhaps at a graduation ceremony, a visa application office, or when being called to come to the reception at a doctor’s office. Can you now imagine a scenario where, just after your name is spoken, you are taken away by two men? The non-negotiable nature of this taking seems to suggest either being carted off to a mental asylum against one’s will or being arrested. Now, let’s combine these guesses with our previous guesses to find a scenario that encompasses both. Can you picture a context where a name is called and then someone is taken away or arrested? Maybe it’s coming together in your mind. Let’s read the rest of the riddle to confirm our suspicions. We are told the man later dies under the care of others. Does this gel with our tentative guesses so far? Yes!
The answer to the riddle is this: the man is in a courtroom and a judge announces his verdict and officially says the man’s name. The man has committed murder and is found guilty, and then sentenced to death. Later, he dies under the care of others—i.e. he is executed in custody.
The kind of thinking we use when solving such a puzzle has two uses. First, it helps us flex our imagination and creativity, dreaming up and trying out completely novel scenarios—this is the essence of problem solving. Second, it helps us gain a richer understanding of certain phenomena, insights that we might miss if we didn’t understand the important role context plays.
In a murder mystery, all is revealed when we understand the context the crime took place in—we can suddenly see how the motive, opportunity, and means came together to produce the crime. When archeologists dig up artifacts, they only truly gain comprehension of what they are or what they were used for when they have a bigger context to plug it all into. Similarly, a therapist needs to know some back story to see the meaning behind certain feelings or actions, and a historian needs to know the particular political and cultural milieu before he can understand the writings of a person from that time. Little riddles like this seem trivial, but they help us practice a set of skills that we need in every area of life.
Surviving a Leap
Try this one on for size: “A man living in a fifty-story building decides one day to jump out of the window, but surprisingly, he survives with no injuries at all. How?”
This one will likely remind you of the window cleaner riddle we did earlier—has your brain sent you a little reminder to look for all the ways this puzzle could be solved in similar ways? Congratulations—you’re learning. If you’ve not only tried the previous riddles but actually incorporated the lessons learned from each one, this riddle should be rather easy to complete. This is a great thing to consider: that you might have found this riddle difficult if you had never seen it before, but having practiced with a few and having “trained” your brain to do this particular kind of thinking, you can likely solve this riddle a lot faster. Isn’t that amazing?
“Neuroplasticity” is the name we give to the brain’s flexibility, and how we can always change and adapt the literal way our neurons are wired if we continually give our brain certain kinds of tasks to work on. If you routinely chew over difficult puzzles and riddles, your brain adapts and becomes better at doing this over time. There’s a reason doctors recommend elderly people take up jigsaw puzzles, complicated card games, crosswords, and the like—just as with any muscle, the brain can atrophy when not used, but strengthen if given useful exercises.
Let’s turn to the riddle again and see what we can see. If you’ve solved the problem already, can you see all the ways in which it’s similar to the ones we’ve already covered? Maybe you could even make up your own riddles using the same rules. This is an exercise that really puts your brain to the task, like an engineer who takes apart a patented machine—and then understands how to build his own. Here’s a related riddle that is actually a clue to this one, if you haven’t figured it out yet: one man throws a deadly hand grenade at another man, who catches it in his bare hands and makes no attempt to shield himself. The man is uninjured—how?
The answer to this riddle is simply that the hand grenade was thrown with the pin still inside, so although it is strictly a deadly weapon, it’s not activated. Can you use the same mental token to go back and solve the above riddle?
The answer is this: the man jumped out of a window on the first floor, and was naturally unharmed from leaping only a few feet.
Were you tricked by the “fifty-story building” part, assuming that a tall building is tall from every floor? Sometimes rivers are frozen, sometimes grenades are inactive, and sometimes key people in the story are not actually alive. As you encounter these strange riddles, the neurons in your brain are actually reconnecting and rewiring themselves so that the next time you face a puzzling scenario in your own life, you won’t look at it in quite the same way.
A Ferocious Tiger
Our final context puzzle is not much different from the others. As always, give yourself the time to really try to figure it out before reading the answer: “A woman is slowly walking outside on a hot Sunday afternoon when she suddenly spots a ferocious tiger in the distance. Instead of immediately running away, the woman instead runs toward the tiger. Why?”
As always, let’s begin with questions.
We know that people usually run away from tigers because they’re dangerous. If this woman didn’t run away, does that mean this tiger isn’t dangerous? This, by the way, is a classic exercise in inference. We could then ask what circumstances might allow a tiger to no longer be dangerous. How many can you think of?
The tiger is wounded somehow and actually needs her help, and the woman happens to be a wild animal vet
The woman is actually hunting the tiger, and though it is dangerous, she is armed and intends to shoot it
The tiger is incapacitated somehow, or else the woman is protected from potential attack—is she in an armored car?
Let’s construct a context where a tiger is not only not dangerous, but something you might actively run toward. Have you guessed the answer yet? The solution is this: the woman is actually at a zoo, and when she sees a tiger, it’s in a tiger enclosure, meaning it’s not a threat to her at all. Here, a little bit of step-by-step analytical thinking helps us piece together the context where the information we see makes sense.