Tyler Barrett - Fun, Puzzles and Creativity and the AHA! Experience

Tyler Barrett is Chief Puzzler at Outside the Box Productions, a teaching organization based in Sedona, Arizona. He is also a psychologist, magician, musician, author and teacher. There aren't a lot of people who create puzzles and it might not come as a surprise that they have a secret party every year somewhere in the world. Tanya Thompson of Mastermind Toys in Canada introduced me to Tyler. I have joined her at puzzler and magic gatherings in Nuremberg and New York where I am humbled by the types of mind bending challenges Tyler and his colleagues create.

How did you become involved with puzzles?

I began puzzle collecting about 25 years ago after reading Jerry Slocum’s book “Puzzles Old and New.”  His book opened up a world of mechanical puzzles that I knew nothing about.  This book showed pictures of puzzles crafted by brilliant designers from all over the world.  Many of these puzzles would never be seen in retail stores.  You needed to know a guy who knew a guy in order to get one.  Of course this was all before the internet!  I gradually discovered fellow collectors and traveled the world building my collection.

How did you begin teaching using puzzles?

I started sharing some of my puzzles with my nieces who were k-12 teachers.  They took the puzzles to their classrooms to use as rewards for students who finished an exercise ahead of the allotted time.  The puzzles kept them occupied and non-disruptive.  Soon after, I started to bring my puzzles to schools myself.  Initially it was just to share the joy of playing with puzzles.  Soon I realized that playing with puzzles could lead to life lessons, and started to structure my class time with students with that in mind.

How has your teaching evolved over time?

After offering my puzzle challenges at a few corporate events, I realized that adults could learn a few things about themselves by playing with puzzles.  Soon I was developing classes for adults.  The Art of Creative Problem Solving, and Creativity Through Puzzles became popular courses.

You use the term “creative” a lot.  How do you define creativity?

I use creativity in its broadest sense:  Something new.  A creative person, whether an artist, an inventor or a scientist, comes up with something NEW.  It could be a new piece of music, a new app, or a new cure for disease.  The question is how do you come up with something new?  There are a lot of techniques out there, brainstorming, finding inspiration in other fields, taking something and adding to it, but I have found that there is a lot of trial and error.  Think Edison and the lightbulb.  The people who fail at creativity or invention are those who give up.  It all comes down to motivation and emotions, not smarts.  In all of my classes, students practice coming up with something new.  The more they do it the better they get at it.

Do younger students and adults have different roadblocks to problem solving?

Absolutely.  For young students the biggest problem is persistence.  They often want to give up or try something else after not being able to solve a puzzle in a few minutes.  Because most teaching in our schools is structured such that a teacher is imparting wisdom, most students are used to teachers showing them how to do something.  The kids often cry out “Show me, show me” rather than coming upon a solution all by themselves.

Adults are more persistent.  That said, they are also more habit prone.  They have spent years of feeling, thinking and seeing the world in a habitual way.  Habit is a key roadblock for adults in trying to come up with creative solutions.  It has been said that most creative breakthroughs in mathematics comes from younger mathematicians, they don’t know yet what can’t be done.

I know that you are always looking for the next AHA! Experience.  Tell us about that.

The AHA! Experience has been studied quite a bit of late, so there is more information about it than there was when Archimedes had his “Eureka” experience.  It is now known that when a person has an AHA! breakthrough, the solution to a puzzle or problem is delivered from the unconscious fully formed and vetted.  It almost always works.  It appears like magic.

A number of years ago Bill Ritchie of Thinkfun came to me and asked if there were certain puzzles that were prone to the AHA! Experience.  I put together a group of puzzles that Thinkfun marketed as “AHA! Brainteaser Classics”.  I have used this collection of 8 puzzles in all my classes to get students to feel the wonderful AHA experience.  Once they feel it, they begin to seek it out.  They are able to see the intrinsic rewards of creativity and perhaps the younger students will embark on the road of creativity, one of the most rewarding pursuits available to humans.