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Why was Wheel of Fortune so painful?

The Riddle of the Sphinx: What creature ambles on four at dawn, two at midday, and three at twilight? (Read on to discover the answer…)  As you may be aware, it recently took two “painful” minutes for Wheel of Fortune game show contestants to complete a phrase where only a few letters were missing…



People screamed, “ANOTHER FEATHER IN YOUR CAP!!” at their televisions and vented their frustration on social media, where they questioned the intelligence of the three contestants and blamed them for an assortment of societal ills, some even demanding that their right to vote be rescinded. Olaf the Snowman from the movie Frozen tweeted “God help us all.” The outrageous response to the failure of a few game show contestants to solve a word puzzle in a timely fashion—a word puzzle based on an antique idiom that is often misquoted—was, in my opinion, totally bonkers. Why did so many lose their minds over something so trivial? And why did I too find the Wheel of Fortune clip to be mentally and even physically uncomfortable? I had to know, so I reached out to Marcel Danesi, professor emeritus of semiotics (the study of signs and symbols) and anthropology at the University of Toronto, an expert on puzzles. I asked Marcel (we’re now on a first-name basis, lol!) if the desire to solve puzzles is far stronger than we care to acknowledge. He responded that the urge to solve puzzles is rooted in the powerful need to solve mysteries that can be seen in children when you recite a riddle. The child will demand that you provide the answer to the riddle and will not let go. In his book An Anthropology of Puzzles: The role of puzzles in the origins and evolution of mind and culture, Marcel explores how puzzles are a miniature expression of our innate need to ask and seek answers about the world around us. Puzzles cry out to be solved and are a playful way to mine human intelligence for gems of truth. One of the oldest school textbooks in human history, the Egyptian Ahmes Papyrus that dates back to before 1650 BCE, is essentially a collection of math puzzles. It’s in mathematics where we can most clearly link solving puzzles to the expansion of knowledge. The theories of equations and probability, for example, began as puzzles. Riddles, as you may have already discovered in your answer to the Riddle of the Sphinx, can reveal metaphors that become a part of our culture. Puzzles are experiments in human intelligence that require what Marcel calls “blended thinking,” a flip-flop between imaginative thinking and reasoning. For example, your imagination may suggest an opening guess for Wordle, but your reasoning will discard QUEEN as the word you should to go with. Or not. Perhaps you’re like me and let your imagination guide you. Maybe that explains why my husband, who is a mechanical engineer, bests me, an English major, more often than is fair at Wordle. He’s a lot more reasonable. Life is a puzzle, and we’re all in search of a solution. Don’t let the seemingly trivial context of Wheel of Fortune fool you: perhaps the reason the unsolved puzzle with its empty boxes made us feel so uncomfortable is that it reminded us in some way of the emptiness that lingers in the existential puzzle that we all have yet to solve. You can ease some of the discomfort that the chaos of life creates through the emotional relief of solving puzzles. As mentioned in last week’s 5-Minute Recharge, Kelly Carlin finds comfort in putting together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. And Chris Coleman, the Wheel of Fortune contestant who went bankrupt trying to solve the “Another feather in your cap” puzzle, will find emotional relief on a beach in St. Lucia. The answer to the Riddle of the Sphinx is “Man” The only creature on earth who crawls on all fours in infancy (the metaphor of the dawn of life), walks upright on two legs as a grown-up (the midday of life) and with the help of a walking stick in old age (the twilight of life). (A walker would make this riddle even more mind boggling by changing twilight to six legs!) Get Fully Charged on Puzzles

* First I must thank Professor Marcel Danesi of the University of Toronto for responding so quickly and graciously to my email asking him why people were so worked up about Wheel of Fortune. Marcel not only answered my question, but he gave me a PDF of his book An Anthropology of Puzzles when I wasn’t able to find a copy of his book quickly enough to read it in time to write this newsletter.

* Be sure to check out Marcel's The Puzzle Instinct: The Meaning of Puzzles in Human Life.

* An interview with Marcel is featured in “Why Solving Puzzles Feels So Satisfying, Especially During Quarantine.” Galadriel Watson, The Washington Post, May 4, 2020.

* Pat Sajak reminds us that it’s more important to be kind than right. “After Wheel of Fortune Debacle, Pat Sajak Taught a Remarkable Lesson in Empathy.” Justin Bariso, Inc.

* Today's Wordle puzzle

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