Suzana Herculano-Houzel

Why does the shuffle button work?


My kids got me hooked on the games in the New York Times app. Wordle, which is a “Password” of letters that form words (do kids today still play Password? That game was a sensational lesson in logical thinking!), which I already knew, but hadn’t yet ventured into the others. Spelling Bee and Connections became our (well, my) Morning Routine for Getting Out of Bed, a kind of Brain Warm-Up. And when our results are shared in our group messages, the others know that we’re already up and mentally ready to face the day.

So: Spelling Bee is reminiscent of the cryptograms that used to be in the newspaper, except that there are only six letters, plus a central letter. The game consists of forming words using only the letters available. Words have to have at least four letters; they can’t be names or foul language; you can repeat letters at will; and you have to use the central letter at least once. As you find words, you earn points, climb the rankings and get closer to the highest ranking in each game: Genius.

Right. The game only has three buttons: one to erase the letters, one to submit the word formed, and another with two little arrows in a circle, one pointing to the other, which I didn’t know what it was, so, as I was stuck, sure that there were more words waiting for me but frustrated that I couldn’t find them, I tapped the little arrows to find out what was happening. It was the shuffle button, which shuffles the letters and changes their arrangement around the central letter.

And the magic happened: with the letters in new places, I instantly came up with not one, but several new words. All I had to do was move the letters around. How and why?

A self-respecting neuroscientist on duty immediately consults her mental alphabet and is amazed at the revelation. It makes perfect sense.

The Shuffle button is a chance for the brain to recognize words whose letters were already in front of it simply because shuffling FORCES the brain to look at the new letters now nearby as part of larger sequences. Sentences are word associations, and words are letter associations. Producing words in the Spelling Bee therefore depends on finding the thread that joins the pieces that are the letters together by association in the brain.

Moving your eyes is how we produce sequences by temporal association, testing one letter together with this one, then the same letter together with that one, to see if the brain catches the thread and puts the rest together. But to press the Shuffle button is to give yourself the chance to produce sequences by spatial association, as the game rubs the sequence you hadn’t noticed in your face.

The game gives as hints the number of words beginning with each letter and how many letters they have, plus the number of words beginning with two identified letters. Anyone who needs more hints can ask the university students, or the community, for help within the game itself. The first hint is always a list of definitions of the meaning of the words in the game of the day. These hints work in the same way as the Shuffle: in one way or another, they all give the brain new opportunities to find the thread.

Finding the words is a delight, and overcoming the frustration of the stubborn word that escapes the brain sometimes makes it necessary to consult the Community in order to finish the game and get out of bed to start the day. But what’s even more pleasurable is getting the children irritated by several days of Genie in a row, and increasingly without the help of hints.

The brain also explains: the number of words in any language is limited, so as you play, more and more words start to repeat themselves. You just have to pay attention, use the words and increase your vocabulary. Just like we do in real life…

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