Thinking Critically
February 28, 2016 10:10 AM   Subscribe

What puzzles, games or new activities can I do to keep improving my critical thinking, analytical, and logical abilities? AKA "Continuing Ed" for liberal arts graduates who have a hard time with "2 + 2" (when they're intoxicated, anyway...).

No Lumosity or similar "brain-training" apps, please. Been there, done that, not quite what I am looking for.

I have a post-grad degree but, truthfully, do not enjoy academics per se - the departmental politics and competitive nature of academics are big turn offs for me. I'm not looking to go back to school, I just want to find fun ways to keep my mind sharp and challenged. Like P90x for my brain? Except comparing "muscle confusion" with "brain confusion" may not be the best analogy as it actually sounds... yeah, about right... given that when I remember back to my undergrad college philosophy courses, the more I learned, the more questions I had...

I also don't have the strongest math skills. But, I am not averse to improving them. In fact, I want to improve them, and I know it would help me with critical thinking and life skills in general.

Currently, some of what I do to keep my brain in check is get plenty of exercise (cardio, strength, yoga), Zen meditation, reading lots of academic or feature length journalism essays, being a devout Scrabble player, and engaging in inconsistent spurts of Spanish language practice every few months. I'd like to do more challenging or intensive versions of things like this, to really open my mind and stimulate sections of my brain that are underused. Perhaps something like the Logic Games and Logic Puzzles one sees on the LSAT?

I'm open to any ideas. Especially if they are free, but inexpensive ideas (like spending $50 to audit a particular university class) are OK too.
posted by nightrecordings to Education (25 answers total) 94 users marked this as a favorite
I like chess tactics puzzles on
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:27 AM on February 28, 2016

I like the sort of thing you can find here because it requires both careful reading and inference. This site appears to permit you to customize the puzzles for complexity and difficulty.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 10:31 AM on February 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

Work through the games on Project Euler.
posted by sammyo at 10:34 AM on February 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

Maybe you've tried this, but this is EXACTLY what I use Sudoku for. I have a free app on my phone and can usually gauge my mental acumen by how long it takes to solve the Hard puzzle. Sorry if this isn't what you're looking for, and obviously YMMV.
posted by guster4lovers at 11:07 AM on February 28, 2016

I am a huge fan of the Posh Logic puzzle series. Very similar to the LSAT logic puzzles. They also have thematic crosswords and sudoku. You can find them online or at many bookstores in the games section.
posted by skye.dancer at 11:28 AM on February 28, 2016

If you have a PC or Playstation, I'd suggest The Witness. It's a gorgeous virtual environment filled with loads of well-designed logic puzzles that test abstract reasoning ("what are the rules behind this puzzle? how do they apply to the next puzzle?").
posted by justkevin at 11:31 AM on February 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Logic puzzles and traditional riddles are great for this, particularly anything by Martin Gardner or Raymond Smullyan. You can also search for 'lateral thinking puzzles' to find puzzles that involve less math and more logical reasoning/understanding of social norms. Any book that has a problem involving a wolf, a goat, and a cabbage desperately needing ferry transport; or two gatekeepers - one a compulsive liar and the other compulsively honest - falls in this category.
There are also a number of books in the genre 'how to pass the Google interview' containing word problems with math, logic, or CS underpinnings. The problems themselves are rarely used in tech interviews, but fit your criteria perfectly, and may help you to improve your ability at spot estimation and understanding of CS concepts like sorting, search, and stop criteria. They do not require advanced math or any actual CS knowledge, and are meant to be worked through by thinking aloud or on a whiteboard.
posted by Svejk at 11:31 AM on February 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

posted by Mister Moofoo at 11:32 AM on February 28, 2016, if you're looking for basic to intermediate level math exercises.
posted by dilaudid at 12:12 PM on February 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

1. Crosswords.
2. Sign up for DASH (different area same hunt)
posted by TestamentToGrace at 12:24 PM on February 28, 2016

Have you tried programming? It's an easy way to kill two birds with one stone as it exercises your brain and also includes math (as much or as little as you want basically). It doesn't even have to be much or something very complicated (we don't need to make the next big app or social network).

Let's start simple with some basic JavaScript. All it needs are a browser and a text-editor (e.g.: NP++) and you are good to go. Start with the free Codecadamy course (there is a pay-option but we can ignore this for now). This will give you a basic understanding of what's going on. After this course we get more introduction by Khan and can use this course together with the wonderful Coding Math YT-series to actually introduce more math (see other Khan courses for more on math; non-programming related). When you mastered all this and are eager for more, you can dive into something like Elm, which is similar to the Processing.js library introduced in the Khan course.

All the courses I linked to are very graphical in nature. You will see a lot of balls bouncing, make snowmen, and could even get a Super Mario game together. They are also very much learning by doing. Instead of reading line after line about some cryptic programming concept, you actually write code and see directly how the code influences objects on a webpage.
posted by KMB at 12:26 PM on February 28, 2016 [13 favorites]

I have indeed bought LSAT logic practice workbooks for long flights instead of crossword puzzles. They're nice in that they don't just have the puzzles, they teach you how to solve them. So, not just exercise of something you already know, an actual learning experience.

I also like Skritter and Anki on my phone, for learning Chinese characters. That seems to use a combination of memory, visual, sound (the tones), and motor skills (drawing) that make it a whole-mind workout. Bonus: I've actually been unexpectedly surprised to read some signs and restaurant menu items, or "recognize" what the recording on the airport tramway says (once I've already heard the English)
posted by ctmf at 12:30 PM on February 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

I've been on this sort of kick because it makes me happy. Similar to Sudoku, I'm addicted to Hungry Cat Picross which is free on iOS at least. You have to fill in a little pixel drawing given constrictions on how many of each color are in the row/column and if they're sequential. It gets quite difficult and requires a lot of leaps once you ramp up to expert.

I do logic puzzles often too. You can find books anywhere magazines are sold usually.

There's a million free Sudoku apps.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 1:51 PM on February 28, 2016

Re math:

Get some fun, yet challenging, math books, like The Number Devil, Alice in Flatland, and A Tour of the Calculus (okay, this last as not as fun, but I made it halfway through and it was cool).

Go to youtube. Google up interesting videos. Here is a good one: Math Encounters -- Five Balls, Two Hands: The Patterns of Juggling -- Colin Wright (Presentation)

You can skip about the first 7 minutes of the video. It is some kind of intro. The rest is a math encounters presentation and is by a guy with a PhD in mathematics (I don't think the video tells you that detail, but he and I are Internet acquainted). He is entertaining and knows his stuff and ramps up gradually while covering lots of interesting math. I have a decent math background and watched it at least a dozen times, catching new things that I had previously missed more often than not. It is incredibly entertaining the first time through and more educational with repeats. (I mean, after seeing it a few times, you have the jokes memorized, but are still learning new concepts.)

There is lots of fun math out there. If you aren't super comfortable with numbers per se, that isn't what math is about anymore than letters of the alphabet are what communication is about. There are lots of important math concepts (like "Garbage in, garbage out") that can be learned without crunching a bunch of numbers. I used that approach (explanations with as few numbers as possible) to give my oldest son a good grounding in math in spite of his difficulties with numbers.

Best of luck. And enjoy.
posted by Michele in California at 2:26 PM on February 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

You mentioned the LSAT — well, you could take actual LSAT exams!

Seconding the recommendation of Raymond Smullyan, especially The Riddle of Scheherazade. I like the chapter on "coercive logic."

Not a game, but reading philosophy can be a good mental exercise, if you think actively about the problems. For instead, this book on metaphysics.

Basic Economics
by Thomas Sowell is a good book with questions in the back (intended for use in an econ class, but you could answer them on your own). For something breezier on the same topic, you could get The Economic Naturalist by Robert H. Frank, which poses economic questions about everyday life, followed by his answers. You could cover up the answers and try to give your own answers.
posted by John Cohen at 3:51 PM on February 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've been listening to a property law class on the drive to and from work. It's kind of fun listening to him use the socratic method. I try to think up my own answers before some student says what I was thinking and gets shot down. Not all the student responses are clearly audible, but he does a good job of repeating and summarizing.
posted by ctmf at 4:35 PM on February 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

critical thinking, analytical, and logical abilities

I'm going to elide "critical thinking" as its definition seems to vary from person to person and even between contexts for the same person.

sgtatham's puzzle collection is a nice set of puzzles to learn, engage and master. Just be aware that some of the puzzles have easily defeated puzzle generators. WPC publishes a backlog of puzzles, if you're interested in pursuing 'harder' puzzles. Still, I find them an enjoyable break from time to time.
posted by pwnguin at 8:04 PM on February 28, 2016

Teach yourself Scratch:
Scratch is a programming language and an online community where children can program and share interactive media such as stories, games, and animation with people from all over the world. As children create with Scratch, they learn to think creatively, work collaboratively, and reason systematically. Scratch is designed and maintained by the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the MIT Media Lab.
It's free and you can look at it as logic games, an introduction to computer programming, or just buggering around for fun.
posted by pracowity at 6:02 AM on February 29, 2016

2. Sign up for DASH (different area same hunt)

On a similar note, see if your city has Puzzled Pint.
posted by maryr at 10:08 AM on February 29, 2016

Penny Press / Dell Magazines sell a variety of logic puzzle back issues for cheap, or you can subscribe to new issues. I love doing these kinds of puzzles and the answers in the back explain how to solve them, if you get stuck. The British ones are kind of fun if you're an American.
posted by jabes at 10:58 AM on February 29, 2016

There's a whole genre of logic puzzles on Sporcle that are a cross between conventional logic puzzles and Minesweeper. Here are some creators: 1, 2, 3.
posted by divabat at 8:20 PM on February 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Install the version of Simon Tatham's Puzzle Collection for your device (PC, Mac, Linux or mobile), pick a puzzle type that looks interesting, and figure out for yourself how to solve them.
posted by JHarris at 4:23 AM on March 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

Certain card games are great for promoting / developing critical and/or analytical thinking. Poker is perhaps the most popular, but if you don't want to outright gamble, I'd suggest trying to get a bridge foursome together.

I recently started doing this with a group of friends, and, despite the fact that it makes us feel like we're turning into our own grandparents, it is immensely enjoyable and challenging to learn both the "language" of the bidding process and the tactics of the actual play.

Plus, we get to drink booze drinks and eat snacks and be, like, social and stuff. I highly recommend it.
posted by dersins at 10:17 AM on March 4, 2016

I've been listening to a property law class on the drive to and from work. It's kind of fun listening to him use the socratic method. I try to think up my own answers before some student says what I was thinking and gets shot down

I was bitten by a similar bug when I helped a friend in law school study torts. It's kind of like AskMe legal questions except you are allowed to speculate and the asker always updates the question with the relevant case law.
posted by Room 641-A at 11:10 AM on March 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm not much into sudoku but I really enjoy Kenken - to me, the mathematics and logic aspects of kenken are more fun than sudoku.

For Spanish, iTalki and Lang-8 both let you submit little journal entries that others then correct for you. There are also a lot of terrific podcasts from Spanish public radio organizations RFI and RTVE (self-link to previous comment).

Finally, try a search for logic puzzles grid to get a ton of links to those logic grid puzzles where you get a certain number of clues and you have to figure out how all the traits match the various items.
posted by kristi at 7:45 PM on March 4, 2016

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