What I’ve learned from the Rubik’s Cube

Around the last year I started playing with the Rubik’s Cube. I’ve always been fascinated by that toy (I don’t know if toy is the proper word for it), but I never had the chance to play extensively with it. Maybe because I never owned one. One day I was wandering through the shelves of a toy store, I saw one and brought it home.

I started to play with it during the summer time, as a way to relax myself while doing something manual other than video games. I tried do understand how it worked and tried to come up with some reasoning on possible ways to solve. I was able to solve the first layer – yes, I thought it was a good idea to try to solve it by “layers”.

In few days I was able to solve the first layer very quickly, it’s not that hard. Then I started to think to the second layer, slightly harder, but I was able to craft my homemade recipe to make the second layer too. Sometimes it was working, sometimes not. I started to get frustrated. At a certain point I gave up. I told myself it was basically too hard for my brain to go ahead with it and I asked YouTube to show me something.

You won’t belive that, but I was surprised to find out that YouTube was actually full of videos of people showing you how to solve the Rubik’s Cube. After few search results I saw that a lot of people was talking about solving it by layers and I felt proud of myself for the little achievement of starting the approach from the right perspective.

I started to focus on a video explaining how to solve the second layer. Thinking back to those days, I remember it took me a huge amount of time to learn how to make the second layer. I found it really hard to grasp those 3D movements. I started to practice on and on with the first two layers. Solve it till the second layer, mess it up, start again. This was for a long time my favourite relax practice.

Once you solve the second layer, there are at least other four techniques to follow to solve the remaining layer:

  • the yellow cross
  • the oriented yellow cross
  • the corners in place
  • the corners oriented

Those are the ones I learned and the ones that I keep using today. I suppose there are many others, maybe faster and more complex ones, but I’m not interested in learning them for now.

The other day I was playing with it while being absorbed in other thoughts, when I realized that no matter how much I practiced, there was always a certain degree of effort I had to put in it. It was like if, while I was getting better in speed and precision of my movements and the “automation” of those movements, the amount of effort I had to put in the recognition of the “rule to apply” was somewhat constant.

I could be completely absorbed in other thoughts while doing the easy parts, for instance moving blocks around when the pattern to apply was recognized, but I had to focus a lot when I had to understand what was the next step required.

I divided the mental activity required to solve the Rubik’s Cube with those pre-learned techniques in mainly three areas:

  • Pattern recognition
  • Rule representation
  • Rule application

Pattern recognition

This requires your brain to read the colors and positions and to scan your memory in order to find a matching pattern. This is quite expensive as it seems, since I can’t completely focus on something else while doing that.

This step is completed when your brain understands at what point in the solving process you are. For instance, when you say: “the next step is to make the oriented yellow cross”. Let’s call this “high intensity”.

Rule representation

By “rule application” I mean to figure out what are the movements to be done in order to complete the rule. This is what you should have clear when you start to move the cubes to place them in the desired positions.

For instance, this step is when you say: “ok, in order to make the oriented yellow cross I have to do this series of movements”.
I’m not sure this is actually a step by itself because I admit sometimes I don’t even have to think about it. If this step exists, it’s for sure very short lived and melts into the third step. Call it “medium intensity”.

Rule application

This part is basically all mechanical. The part of your brain working on this I guess is the “cerebellum”, the one you use for all movements you already master, like walking and typing on a keyboard. During this step I mostly have to focus on the precision of movements.

It’s the Zen part, when you want to move your fingers as precise as a robot would. Like the people you see solving the cube in less than a minute. I’m not good at that, but I don’t blame myself to much.

That’s the part I enjoy the most actually, it’s the part I can do completely disconnected, thinking to whatever else. Sometimes I can even close my eyes and still make it right. Let’s say this is “zero effort, high amusement”.

After coming up with this kind of theoretical separation of scopes, I started to ask myself if similar scopes can be matched in some field of everyday life.

According to the above schema, it would make sense to think that for the human brain to recognize patterns is somewhat expensive. To think about “what to do next” is not so hard when you have a set of applicable solutions to the problem.

To apply the rule may be more or less hard depending on the kind of physical activity involved, but it’s absolutely something that can be automated and “delegated” to peripheral areas of the brain.

The conclusion is that I was able to find several examples of such scopes applied to real life activities. To talk about those would require a separate post. For now I leave you with these few thoughts. I would love to hear what you think about it.

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