(Copyright © 2009)


Putting the pieces of a dismembered picture puzzle back in their original relationships to one another is an intriguing aspect of consciousness because people so love to do it. What is it about putting Humpty Dumpty together again that we find so inviting or even compelling?


The day after Thanksgiving, I clear off the table, open the sealed box, and dump out the pieces of a picture puzzle my partner has had lying, undone, around her house for twenty years. A seaside painting by Maurice Prendergast (1858-1924)—lots of impressionistic ladies in white dresses with parasols. Turning each piece face-up, I get started mid-morning and finish it (with help) just at midnight. Each parasol is a different tint of rose, which helps somewhat in grouping the pieces, but every edge is soft, so the tones blend subtly into one another. What amazes me is how intently I keep at it for 15 hours, working on one piece then another. Relying on a variety of clues to fit them in—shape, color, pattern, edges, texture, and so on. I start with the outside edge, then move on to the hard part of situating color masses. It gets easier in the end when there are fewer pieces left. The last twenty pieces are a joy to drop into place one after the other. That was it, a day in the life doing a picture puzzle. I think I may have worked on only one other during the past 20 years.


Is that what life is about, doing picture puzzles? I hope there’s more to it than that. Which gets me thinking. What is it, exactly, that’s involved in working on such puzzles? They are visual, obviously, so eye-hand coordination is involved. Not gross, not truly fine, somewhere in the middle. A kind of situational dexterity. There are no rules as there are in games. Each puzzler can chose her own tactics, and switch them at will. But to maintain such intense visual concentration hour-after-hour for so long a time, in my experience, is unusual. I sometimes get fidgety after doing the same thing for 20 minutes. How come with puzzles I can keep going so long? Not out of duty but pure engagement in the task. What holds my attention as if life itself depended on it?


One thing about doing picture puzzles, the goal is crystal clear. There may not be rules, but the object is to get every piece in its place so the image will emerge picture perfect. But I find completing the task anticlimactic. It’s the process that matters, the engagement, the doing of the puzzle, not its completion.


It’s a matter of fitting one piece, another, and another, without any sense of time or the stage of the process you’re in. Pure dog work, that’s what it is. Doggedly moving from one piece to another, one gap to another. Yet pleasurable dog work. That’s what is so captivating about puzzles, and so rewarding each and every time something fits. Picture puzzles cut gratification into microsteps, each as rewarding as the next, and the next. Maybe knitting is like that. It’s taking this perfect stitch, this, and then this—and it all adds up to something, a scarf or a sweater.


Piece work, literally. Is that a survival skill? One foot in front of the other. One shingle in place, then the next. One raspberry picked, then on and on until your basket if full. Life lived not one day at a time but one instant after another. Slogging onward. But it doesn’t seem like slogging. Each step is a challenge in itself. Which earns you the right to undertake the next. How does that work? I think there must be something about consciousness itself that is assembled that way, involving one neuron firing at a time until the job is done. 


When you work on a picture puzzle, where is that activity taking place in the brain? Certainly the retinas are involved, the visual nuclei or relay stations, the visual processing areas (of which there are many) in the cortex, the motor planning and actuating areas, the cerebellum to tidy up the process. But a picture puzzle is a kind of map, and I’ll bet the hippocampus deep in the temporal lobes of your brain and mine is involved. Through studies with rats, it has been known for almost 40 years that the hippocampus maintains a cognitive representation of the territory where the individual is situated, and when doing a puzzle, that’s exactly where you are—inside that puzzle, examining every detail. Not only are you in the puzzle, the hippocampus maintains nerve excitation as long as you’re there, neural activity lasting until this section is done, then this, then the whole. Two months after doing the Prendergast puzzle, I can still remember working on specific sections of it. I was building the map of my current situation one piece at a time. And the hippocampus has the know-how enabling me to do that.


The hippocampal map of our personal space is so finely divided that individual nerve cells correspond to where we are within the larger field, different cells being activated as we move about—or focus on different areas within the puzzle. Our brains, it seems, are made for doing picture puzzles. Or more accurately, picture puzzles are popular because they are designed to make use of mental capabilities that fit us to the situations we put ourselves into—which including puzzling situations.


On Christmas day, I take out another puzzle depicting a whorl of dolphins among a school of small fish. I had given it to my partner years before, and decide it is time to face the challenge of piecing together fragments of all those fish and all those dolphins in their blue-green sea. It is a killer puzzle, not because the fish are getting eaten, but because all the fish look very similar and the bits of dolphin flesh, ditto. Yet there are clues to where a given piece might fit into the overall scene represented in the cognitive map assembled by my hippocampus. I suspect that each of the over 500 pieces has a cell in my brain to itself. I say that because I work piece by piece, characterizing each one in relation to the overall pattern provided by the picture on the lid of the puzzle box. I know each piece has a specific placement in the field, and I use a variety of clues to suggest just where it might fit in. Illumination comes from above, so I can often tell the orientation of a piece by studying highlights and shadows. Which tell me whether the small fish are swimming to the left or right, and at what angle. Most of the fish on the left side are swimming down and to the left, most on the right are heading down and right. The quality of the light differs top to bottom, which lets me make a rough guess about placement in the various strata of the puzzle. I do the top and bottom edges first, then work on particular dolphins and nearby fish. Again, I start after breakfast, and finish at midnight, fully engaged the whole time. Never bored, never restless, just working away, away, away. That’s the kind of work my hippocampus seems suited for. Puzzling, I decide, is very much like knitting, where the map of the sweater is inside you, and you know exactly where every knit and purl fits into the overall design. Doing picture puzzles, I decide, is like massaging the inner workings of my brain. Maybe knitters feel the same way.



“Human consciousness is the way it is because of the way our brain is,” writes Joseph LeDoux at the end of The Emotional Brain (Simon & Schuster, 1996, page 302). Eric R. Kandel expands on that theme in his chapter on the Biological Basis of Individuality in Principles of Neural Science (McGraw-Hill, 2000, page 1277): “Everything the brain produces, from the most private thoughts to the most public acts, should be understood as a biological process.” Even working on picture puzzles, even knitting.