Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dan Feyer is the World's Fastest Crossword Solver and a Collaborative Pianist

Every year as the fall season winds down in December, I have a compulsion to spend my newly found free time doing crossword puzzles. According to a NY Times article earlier this month, that type of brain activity is exactly what one needs in order to develop an open minded, playful approach to problem solving.
“What we think is happening,” said Mark Beeman, a neuroscientist who conducted the study with Karuna Subramaniam, a graduate student, “is that the humor, this positive mood, is lowering the brain’s threshold for detecting weaker or more remote connections” to solve puzzles.

This and other recent research suggest that the appeal of puzzles goes far deeper than the dopamine-reward rush of finding a solution. The very idea of doing a crossword or a Sudoku puzzle typically shifts the brain into an open, playful state that is itself a pleasing escape, captivating to people as different as Bill Clinton, a puzzle addict, and the famous amnesiac Henry Molaison, or H.M., whose damaged brain craved crosswords.
But that's not all. CPB readers might be interested to know that the current American Crossword Puzzle Tournament champion Dan Feyer is a collaborative pianist and musical director in New York. From the Times article on Dan:
“Music directors teach actors the music, accompany them in rehearsals and conduct the band,” Mr. Feyer said. “On Broadway, the music director is the guy with the baton in the pit. Off Broadway, it’s the guy sitting at a piano conducting with his head.”

So how does that guy become a puzzle ace? Besides training like an athlete, Mr. Feyer said, it helps to have “underlying brain power and a head for trivia.” He always had high grades and test scores, he said. He excelled at math as well as music, abilities that he thinks go together with crossword solving.

What they all have in common, he said, is pattern recognition — as he begins filling in a puzzle grid, he starts recognizing what the words are likely to be, even without looking at the clues, based on just a few letters.

“A lot of the time, crossword people are musicians,” he said, noting that Jon Delfin, who has won the tournament seven times, is a pianist and music director. “Mathematicians and computer scientists are also constructors.”

That makes for only slightly less cold comfort, since I have difficulty solving a Times crossword past the Wednesday level.

Here's Dan solving Saturday puzzle in under 5'30":

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