CROSSWORDS AND CONSCIOUSNESS

"I feel that the most basic feature of consciousness is that of finding something."
- Wittgenstein

I know it’s on a par with admitting crisp-eating, or a secret passion for videoing Songs of Praise, but I admit… my name is Paul Condon and I am a crossword buff. There, that wasn’t so hard. For me, anyway. However, I feel a duty to "you the dear reader" to at least attempt to alleviate some of the embarrassment you’re probably feeling due to this weird announcement. So I shall take you immediately to the most important point:

Doing crosswords teaches you, not just abstractly but in a very concrete way, that you have an unconscious. The twist being that of course as the unconscious is mind, it is something you have to know intellectually. Hmm… think about it…

Is knowing things intellectually all there is to knowing? Of course not. So what does this imply for the oft-stated need to really know things - "concretely", not "just intellectually"? Well, we know what that means - instinctively, cos we’ve all had that experience of really understanding something, as opposed to "just intellectually".

Is that clear now?

And we know that this is something that we need to do in various areas of life. So we need to take that feeling of really, properly knowing something, and try to put ourselves into the way of feeling like that in other areas too. It’s like taking the lesson from one area of life, in blueprint form, and comparing that blueprint to the less familiarly-known new situation that’s bothering you.

All this also shows how easily abstraction can become a layer of mediation that reduces meaning. (In more ways than one, I know). Abstraction’s very useful for solving crossword clues, but it needs to be put in some kind of context. The context is that your intellect is intimately bound up with your body. The brain communicates with the body via ‘volume transmission’ (something-or-other involving strange enzymes that communicate up and down your spinal column and enter your bloodstream), amongst other ways, and there is a constant two-way interplay between the two. (Indeed the reason that mind-expanding drugs keep turning out to be dangerous is that the brain and body share a lot of chemicals that do different things - one to the mind, one to the body. Serotonin, for example, the famous mood chemical, is also a potent vaso-constrictor when abroad in the body). Incidentally this is why the excitement in some quarters about conscious machines is so misguided. Consciousness is clearly intimately linked with the brain, but that brain that has evolved biologically and which is all of a piece with the chemical systems that arose due to evolution. (We are getting back to crosswords, trust me . . .)

The artificial intelligence chaps are really quite insistent that by jiggling around electricity inside the right arrangement of metal/ceramic devices we will in fact create self-awareness (bless), and they have this specially-biased test, the Turing Test, that will allegedly prove that a machine is conscious. It’s simple: you hide the machine and get a real-life human to ask it questions and if the answers are indistinguishable from what a human would say, then voilà, there’s yer conscious machine.

I always thought the Turing Test was a bit dodgy - surely a much better test of whether a machine is actually conscious would be if it was able to do cryptic crosswords. Why is this? Well, all in all there is definitely a touch of the psychedelic about crosswords. No, really, there is. Stop that derisive snorting at the back. And the front. Try a quick thought-experiment. Imagine what thought processes went through your mind the last time you tackled a cryptic crossword (if you never have attempted one you’ll just have to bear with me). Remember all those oblique, lateral thought processes, all the racking your mind to remember books, films, plays, artworks, emotions, bits of irrelevant trivia, reminiscences and arcane, unnamed (and unnamable?) mental processes. All that accessing the hidden depths. Now speed the whole lot up 100 times. You get a tiny little snippet of a trip. For sure, trips don’t usually consist of much looking at bits of words thinking ‘maybe that ends with -ing, or maybe -ion’, but the other mental brainstorming you do, the more creative stuff, is what we’re looking at here. I suspect that the pleasurable aspect of this is another reason why people can get a bit hooked on crosswords, as well as all that more respectable ‘sense of achievement’ type stuff. (Indeed, who knows whether a ‘sense of achievement’ isn’t in fact some sort of feeling of satisfaction, of completion, that involves left and right brain?)

This strange, right-brain, creative activity is what I don’t see a computer ever really managing to emulate. It shows there is a hidden structure to consciousness. No investigations currently running into artificial intelligence are exploring this structure.

There is a remarkable crossword phenomenon that connects with what I’ve just been rambling about, namely that of the pleasant surprise of discovering that your subconscious contains stuff you never knew you knew. You’re a lot cleverer than you thought, if only you could stimulate your mind in the right way. Utterly bizzarre words, or more incredibly, arcane cultural references can just suddenly make themselves known to your conscious attention. (The writer of this essay recently got the answer ‘Please do not throw stones at this notice’ in an Araucaria crossword, though he admittedly does just about dimly remember seeing a photo of aforementioned notice somewhere). Words, books, plays, artists’ names and god knows what else that as far as you were aware you had no recollection of can just suddenly appear from the void. However, although it’s very pleasantly spooky to discover that you know a lot more than you thought, it’s not so pleasant when you remember all the adverts and other cultural rubbish that’s been put in there.

The second major thing doing crosswords teaches you, (as in shows you - see above), is what compressed information is. For example, take this clue set by Bunthorne:

‘No hope alas for one born with a fear of the new’ (9)

The answer, NEOPHOBIA, came to me straight away. But the reasoning is:

No hope alas:

‘alas’ is an unusual signifier that there’s an anagram in the clue, in this case that of the letters of ‘no hope’.

for one born:

‘B’ is an abbreviation for ‘born’ on family trees

‘one’ is I

and then

‘with a’

means you add an A

‘fear of the new’

is the definition part of the clue, which describes what all the other parts add up to. Good setters always make sure it’s really hard to work out which part of the clue is the definition.

If you don’t see why compressed information is important, then god help you, and good luck. (Just don’t look at any advertisements and you might be OK). I would also say, however, that it has some bearing on the new, OOO-invented redefinition of ‘spirituality’.

I got the above clue instantly while I was taking my shoes off after a night out drinking, feeling pleasantly pissed. On this occasion the crossword happened to be on the floor in front of me, but answers have popped into my head on all sorts of other occasions while my mind was wandering.

This phenomenon is connected with the idea of ‘seeing’. Wittgenstein’s famous duck/rabbit picture is relevant here. Looked at one way it’s a duck, rotated through 90º it’s a rabbit. But what changes in the picture? We immediately see it one way or the other, even though it’s the same arrangement of lines presented in two different ways.

After time, anagrams begin to pop out at you from the clue, without having to write the letters in a circle, as you can automatically see the letters of a word or phrase right there in front of you. However, to get to this point you have to practice first. There is ‘seeing’ we learn to do before we develop self-consciousness, so it feels automatic, and seeing we do afterwards, which has to be consciously learnt. This ‘seeing’ is analogous to ‘getting gist of the argument’. You can read and re-read an essay without really getting it, then suddenly something ‘clicks’ and you really understand (see above). I hope you’re clicking on this essay.

I also discovered that leaving a crossword by the bed and looking at it in the morning just after waking up is a good way to crack tricky clues. It shows how much better your mind works before it gets cluttered with the day’s stresses and strains. It also shows that your mind gets cluttered up with the day’s stresses and strains.

Another Big Important Thing crossword-solving teaches you is that consciousness isn’t an epiphenomenon. It’s not something that arises solely as a by-product of neuronal activity, something that just helplessly observes after the brain’s already ‘decided’ what it’s up to. Consciousness is an active thing in itself, that potentiates the insights gained from subconscious activity by bringing them into awareness, and it also interacts with the subconscious. For example, the conscious can suggest things to the subconscious for it to work on. To give a concrete example, it’s often only when you actually (consciously) write down possible letters so that you can see them on the page in front of you that your subconscious then suddenly provides you with the answer (‘oh yes, I see the answer now’). Just imagining possible word-endings and the like in your mind’s eye is always less successful than actually writing down possibilities. Consciousness also feels like it’s something that devises the strategies for the subconscious to work on. The subconscious needs to be set in action by the conscious - it has to be given suggestions regarding where to look, or even just implored to look hard in the first place. Without this priming, it may still surprise you with an answer, but it often doesn’t.

Of course, it is always possible to say even then that consciousness is an epiphenomenon regardless of what it feels like, in the same way that you can always say you’re the only person that exists, or that the whole universe exists inside a pimple on the nose of a lady in Acton, but for that very reason it’s meaningless in any practical, interesting, or fun terms.

The spookiest thing about crosswords is the sheer level of synchronicity that leaps out at you once you start doing them. It’s a very personal sort of synchronicity so it doesn’t (often) get reported in Fortean Times and the like, but it’s pretty sodding strong nonetheless. You want a quick route to introduce funny coincidences in your life? Start doing cryptic crosswords. In fact, if you’re lucky the coincidences will be a bit more than solely between you and the 15_15 grid, and others will get to ooh and aah at them too. Recently a friend of mine arranged a birthday do for the 29th December. On the 27th he rang round to let everybody know that we were going to start the evening off by meeting in a pub. On the 29th December yours truly (and falsely and meaninglessly as the Discordians might say) was tackling the Araucaria crossword in the Guardian when he came across a tricky clue with a long, three word answer (1 down if you want to check the Guardian’s on-line archive), that nonetheless seemed to be suggesting something strangely familiar. After I’d got a few of the ‘checked’ letters (ie those that cross with other clues), I was staring at the clue still pondering the meaning of it all when a very weird feeling came over me. I then saw, of course, that the answer was the name of the pub that my friend had arranged for us to meet in that afternoon. So of course I took the completed crossword along and shared out the weirdness.

Doing crosswords also makes you vividly aware of how you fuck things up for yourself by defining in advance reasons for why you can’t do them. Don’t deny it - you’re a human being, and you therefore do it. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve assumed that "that clue’s got a literary reference and I don’t know it", or "this is clearly an ultra-obscure word" when in fact the clue was practically spelling out the (simple, non-literary, unobscure) answer. Discovering that there is in fact a part of my mind that quite spontaneously goes to great lengths to block things has been very helpful. We all have a Grinch in our subconscious that steals our psychic Christmas all year round. The answer to the most chronic, persistent, annoying Thing That Is Spoiling Everything might be right there in front of your nose, if only you could see it.

The most powerful way you can interact with crosswords is to take the lessons you learn from solving them and map them onto your life in general. This may sound obsessive or just ridiculous, but I can assure you the insights can be transferred from micro- to macro-, (or indeed meso-) quite easily, and can be very helpful. Comparing mind maps for isomorphisms is always helpful. It’s obviously not just a crossword thing - this works with powerful pieces of music or books, but a lot of people know about that already. I’m here to tell you that it works for crosswords too. And if it works for those, godonlyknows what else you can apply these tricks to. Intense aesthetic appreciation involves intellect and emotion working together and can give you lessons for use in your life in general (and just make your life an awful lot more enjoyable all round anyway). Similarly, the best crosswords neatly combine purely analytical thought with "fuzzy" right-brain flights of fancy, and just doing them gives you a feel for what it’s like to combine the two. Which is a Big Important Thing.

What if it is possible to view the components of your life in the same way as cryptic clues, and "solve" them?

What if this doesn’t just apply to problems, but to any aspects of your life that might benefit from being looked at in a new way?

 

Paul Dominic Condon

0-2001-0

 

Practicalities

The Observer Everyman is a good place to start. It taught me everything I know about how to do cryptic crosswords and isn’t too difficult, though every now and again it features severely testing clues, which is good practice too.

The Telegraph one’s also good to learn with, but come on, it’s in the Telegraph and you’re not going to buy that are you?

Guardian crosswords - challenging but usually worth it. In particular Shed (my personal favourite), Araucaria, Bunthorne and my namesake Paul are highly individual and inventive setters. But big up rispeck and ting also to Mercury, Fawley, Quantum, Orlando, Gordius and Janus. You can actually buy anthologies of both the Guardian quick and cryptic crosswords, or indeed get them off their website at www.guardianunlimited.co.uk. Shed is responsible for the most bizarrely original clue I’ve so far encountered: ‘0 - 0 ÷ -1 phoney wind’ (6 letters). Oh yeah and Chifonie did a good one as well: it was just ‘(1,4,1,6)’ and the answer was ‘I haven’t a clue’, which is good as it’s effectively what I was thinking when I was pondering it.

There’s also a website featuring many of the Guardian setters plus others at www.enigmatist.com . The puzzles on that one are flaming hard, you have been warned.

Finally Cyclops in Private Eye sets high-standard naughty puzzles, with lots of rude words and bawdy references to real life, all done with a satirical edge of course.

The Times crossword actually regularly features clues from various of those mentioned above submitted anonymously, and is nice and hard and good, but it involves giving money to Rupert Murdoch so I avoid it. Anyway, only wallies read the Times.

It’ll help to have a copy of Chambers dictionary. You can often get one for a pound as part of a book club’s special offer. It’ll also help to get a crossword solver’s dictionary - if even Peter Biddlecombe (Times crossword champion 2000) says "we all need to use these from time to time", then you shouldn’t feel too guilty. You’re going to need to use a dictionary at some point, and crossword dictionaries just speed the process up by grouping words together according to length. Furthermore, the more crosswords you do, the less you use dictionaries, of any sort. The Wordsworth Crossword dictionary costs 1 to 2.50 depending on where you buy it.


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