YANSS 233 – A.J. Jacobs explains why the most important rule for solving puzzles also applies to every other problem we face in life: never fall in love with your hypotheses

Did you know there’s a puzzle so difficult the CIA hasn’t been able to solve it, even after decades at hard work? Did you know there’s a puzzle that has a solution, but since it would take longer than the projected lifetime of the universe to solve it, it technically can’t be solved? Did you know medieval monks wrote lascivious riddles whose solutions make the puzzle solver seem like it’s them, not the monks, with the dirty minds?

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Our guest in this episode is A.J. Jacobs, the the four-time New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Living Biblically, Thanks A Thousand, It’s All Relative, and The Know It All His new book, The Puzzler, is a fun, weird, refreshingly scientific book all about the human brain’s fascination with puzzles. Seriously, there’s all sorts of explorations in the book about neural pathways, behavioral routines, how we learn, what gets us into loops, and – this is true – a few attempts to solve the puzzle of our very existence.


The New York Times bestselling author of The Year of Living Biblically goes on a rollicking journey to understand the enduring power of puzzles: why we love them, what they do to our brains, and how they can improve our world.

What makes puzzles—jigsaws, mazes, riddles, sudokus—so satisfying? Be it the formation of new cerebral pathways, their close link to insight and humor, or their community-building properties, they’re among the fundamental elements that make us human. Convinced that puzzles have made him a better person, A. J. Jacobs—four-time New York Times bestselling author, master of immersion journalism, and nightly crossworder—set out to determine their myriad benefits. And maybe, in the process, solve the puzzle of our very existence. Well, almost.


A.J. Jacobs

A.J. Jacobs is an author, journalist, lecturer and human guinea pig. He has written four New York Times bestsellers that combine memoir, science, humor and a dash of self-help. 

He is also editor at large at Esquire magazine, a commentator on NPR and a columnist for Mental Floss magazine. 

His first book is called The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World (Simon & Schuster, 2004). The memoir — which spent two months on the New York Times bestseller list — chronicles the 18 months Jacobs spent reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in a quest to learn everything in the world. It was praised by Time magazine, NewsweekVanity FairUSAToday, Janet Maslin in the New York Times and AJ’s uncle Henry on Amazon.com.

After trying to improve his mind, he turned to his spirit. The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (2007) tells of his attempt to follow the hundreds of rules in the Good Book. It spent three months on the NYT bestseller list, and was praised by Publishers WeeklyKirkus ReviewsThe New York Times Book Review, the Los Angeles TimesUSA Today and others. It appeared on the cover of the evangelical magazine Relevant, but was also featured in Penthouse. (Jacobs is proud to be a uniter, not a divider).

Links and Sources

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Previous Episodes

A.J. Jacobs’ Website

A.J. Jacobs on Twitter

The Puzzler