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This Is Your Brain on Crosswords

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The house has gone to ruin/Since all that Mother's doin'/Is putting letters in the little squares

'Since Ma's Gone Crazy Over Cross Word Puzzles," from the Broadway Revue Puzzles of 1925

"_____ comes but once a year. Var."
Can you solve this devilish holiday-season crossword puzzle clue that just surfaced from my anterior cingulate cortex? Hint: The correct nine-letter answer starts with a "C" and ends with an "s" (see below).

Your logical mind tells you the answer is a no-brainer: "Christmas." But devilish crossword clues, like magic, succeed by misdirection -- the obvious answer is never the correct one. So in this case you need to be creative and think inside the box. (Unless you're my mom, who, when her preferred answer to a thorny clue has more letters than the puzzle provides, simply draws in an extra box or two.)

I grew up believing my songwriter dad could've written more hits if he hadn't wasted thousands of hours on the daily New York Times crossword puzzle and whatever acrostics he could get his hands on.

But I changed my mind shortly after college, when I interviewed Stephen Sondheim at his Manhattan townhouse, every corner of which was bursting with fascinating puzzles. (In addition to being well on his way to becoming America's greatest songwriter, he'd also created a series of cryptic puzzles for New York Magazine.)

In between dismissing his brilliant work on West Side Story -- for which he'd "only" written the lyrics, with Leonard Bernstein doing the composing -- and holding forth on his ground-breaking words-and-music scores for the more recent Company and Follies -- Sondheim explained that his love of puzzles was not only in synch with but also enhanced the creativity that fueled his lyric writing. Sondheim's sumptuous new book Finishing the Hat provides, via outtakes of key lyrics, a wonderful glimpse into how his genius unfolded.

Research reveals that the sudden "insight thinking" that characterizes "aha" moments -- whether it's discovering the perfect word choice for a tough crossword or a finicky lyric -- energizes a specific area of the brain -- the above-mentioned anterior cingulate cortex.

Further, the New York Times reports, a new study by researchers at Northwestern University finds that subjects were "more likely to solve word puzzles with sudden insight when they were amused, having just seen a short comedy routine."

Neuroscientist Mark Beeman, who conducted the study, said, "What we think is happening is that the humor, this positive mood, is lowering the brain's threshold for detecting weaker or more remote connections" to solve puzzles. These joyous states can build on one another, becoming what artists talk about when they say songs, or stories, "write themselves."

Dan Feyer
, America's reigning crossword genius, must be in a particularly joyous mood. The winner of this year's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament completes some 20 puzzles a day and still has time for his "day" job: directing and playing piano in musical theater productions. Feyer solves puzzles so fast -- some NY Times crosswords take him less than two minutes -- it's as if he sees the whole solution in an instant and the rest is merely transcription. (He reminds me of my neighbor Daniel, who sight-reads music so fluidly he can't possibly be reading each note; rather, he says, he's composing along with the composer.)

In the entertaining 2006 documentary Wordplay, which depicts the drama of a previous American Crossword Puzzle tourney, Ken Burns waxes a bit too rhapsodic when he calls crosswords an "iconic manifestation of civilization." More to the point, as Dean Olsher notes in his book From Square One, Norman Mailer likened solving the daily crossword to "combing his brain."

In any case, knowing that my own crossword fanaticism puts me in a community that includes my dad, Sondheim, Mailer, Jon Stewart and Queen Elizabeth II makes me feel that the time I spend is, if not on a par with writing a Broadway musical or reading the Western Canon, more than worthwhile. Plus, as puzzlemaniac Bill Clinton says in Wordplay, it's a hell of a lot of fun.

Of course, no matter how accurately scientists plumb the architecture of our brain activities, the way creativity works -- whether manifested in a song or a flash of crossword inspiration -- remains by definition unknowable. We might as well revel in our moments of inspiration and, as Iris DeMent sings, "Let the mystery be."

(The answer to the clue at the beginning is, "Crispness comes but once a year." It may not make much sense, but it's always been hard for me to pass up a good -- or bad -- pun.)