A man in an open field lies dead with an unopened package next to him. No animal or human is around him. How did he die?
A woman gives birth to two sons born in the same hour of the same day. But they aren’t twins. How?
Finally, a woman shoots her husband, then holds him underwater for five minutes. Later, they go out for dinner and have a nice time. What happened?
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An Unusual Birth
By now, you must be getting familiar with the situational riddle format. That’s good. You are developing new cognitive tools and becoming conscious of a great problem-solving truth: that the solution always lies well outside the conceptual bounds of the problem you find yourself in! Isn’t it a marvelous muscle to strengthen—the ability to think of what you’re not thinking of? Here’s the next riddle.
“A woman gives birth to two sons; they are both born in the same hour, in the same day, in the same year. However, they are not twins.”
The question is, how could this be?
This can be a very frustrating puzzle to work through. On the face of it, it is simply impossible that a woman can give birth to two sons at the same time without them being twins. Right? We know by now to abandon any fanciful ideas of how this might work biologically. More likely, the solution lies in the way we are conceptualizing childbirth, twins, etc., and the way we are using language.
Let’s look at our assumptions that make us arrive at the conclusion that “this situation is not possible.” The riddle tells us it is possible, so we need to dismantle these assumptions if we’re going to find out exactly how.
Assumption: Humans take nine months to gestate, and a woman cannot give birth to another completely separate baby in the same hour after she’s already given birth to one.
Assumption: The only way to have two babies at a time is to have them in twin form.
Focus on the truth of this second assumption, and you will find the solution—an annoyingly simple solution! Is it really true that the only way to have two babies at one time is through twins? We need to return to the facts: the woman gave birth to the two boys at the same hour, same day, same year. Respecting the ordinary limits of human reproduction, we are forced to imagine that nothing mystical has happened, and it’s an ordinary birth. But then, our second assumption must be false somehow (here, we are using our analytical thinking and examining the logic in a deductive argument).
A hint comes in thinking along these lines: What are some ways of children being born that aren’t twins and yet result in two babies being born? This is a way of formalizing the problem.
If you’re ready for the answer, it’s this: the two boys are not twins, but triplets.
Annoying, isn’t it? If you failed to get this one, it should be easy to see why: you completely forget that more than one child can be born at one go, and when they are, they are called twins, triplets, etc. Like the sky in the previous riddle, we completely forget other potential dimensions to the situation. We back ourselves into a corner and assume that there are only two options: twins or single births.
Falling into this “either or” trap is a classic riddle trick. In real life, many problems are solved when we drop this kind of thinking and instead indulge in “this and that” thinking. By properly identifying the full field of possibilities, we see where our solution lies, and don’t get distracted chewing over an artificially narrowed set of facts.
Adam and Eve
Let’s take a look at our fourth situational riddle:
“A man dies and goes to heaven one day. There he discovers thousands of people, and all of them are naked. He scans around to try to find someone he might know. He then sees a couple and instantly recognizes them—they are Adam and Eve.”
The question is, how does the man know that they are Adam and Eve?
This riddle is a little different from the others somehow. It seems very simple on the surface, and at first, the question doesn’t seem all that challenging. But then, you realize that it would be difficult to recognize the literal Adam and Eve in the flesh, having never met them in person (assuming for a second here that you believe the Adam and Eve story is something that literally happened).
It would seem that the man immediately notices something about the man and woman that helps him confirm their identity. What could this distinguishing mark be? What do Adam and Eve possess that other humans don’t? A big clue is in the fact that the riddle goes out of its way to explain that everyone is naked. This alerts us to the probability that the distinguishing feature is something that is seen when a person is naked, and might otherwise be hidden by clothing. (It also tells us that the distinguishing feature is not clothing itself—or something like a fig leaf!)
So, what do we know about Adam and Eve? Specifically, what do we know about the ways they might be different from others? After we’ve analyzed this line of thinking, can we imagine the ways that they’re different that might be immediately visible if they were naked?
You might be seeing the answer by now. Adam and Eve are ordinary humans who don’t in fact have differing features from average people—except for one thing. The key thing about Adam and Eve is that they’re the first people.
The answer to the riddle is obvious: the man recognizes Adam and Eve because they are the only people who do not have belly buttons. Belly buttons or navels are a sign that you were once attached to your mother as you grew in her womb. Adam and Eve, being created directly by God, won’t have them.
Granted, this riddle makes plenty of assumptions itself, and to solve it, you need to immerse yourself in the special mix of language, symbolism, and imagery that it exists within. This riddle requires a deeper knowledge of the story, but also a curiously practical, physiological take on it—so even those familiar with the story will have to practice a little lateral thinking. After all, every artistic depiction of Adam and Eve actually does show them with navels!
A Woman Shoots her Husband . . .
Let’s consider one more situational riddle to practice. By now, you may be getting a good idea of the format of these riddles—as well as the cognitive blind spots and assumptions that stump you, if you haven’t managed to solve some of them. Here’s the riddle:
“A woman shoots her husband, then holds him underwater for five full minutes. A little later on in the day, they both go out for dinner and have a nice time together.”
The question is, how can this be? What happened?
In the first riddle, with the man who asked the barman for a glass of water, the trick lies in the fact that ordinary objects and actions are used in unexpected ways. Because we can’t imagine these ways, the situation looks strange to us. The moment we open our mind to other possibilities, however, the solution becomes obvious.
A similar thing is happening in this riddle. Let’s consider the premise that we are faced with and dig a little deeper.
Assumption: shooting her husband and holding him underwater should kill him.
We already know it doesn’t. This immediately tells us to reexamine our understanding of this shooting and this holding underwater. What else could they mean if not that she took a gun and literally murdered him, then held him underwater?
We can imagine all sorts of non-lethal ways to shoot someone and then hold them underwater. The gun may have been a water pistol and the husband may have been wearing a snorkel, and the woman then merely hugs (i.e. “holds”) him underwater at the same time. In a sense, this is the “right” answer because it does adequately explain the situation. But then again, we could also propose other outlandish “solutions” like her husband is actually an amphibious and bullet-proof superhero and they always have fun on weekends by pretending to murder one another. These solutions are good because they show that a degree of creative thinking is taking place. But they are also unsatisfying in a way—perhaps because we feel that they haven’t really solved anything, and that that insightful aha moment, that jump from conundrum to solution, never really happens.
The lateral thinking in this puzzle may be very obvious to some and frustrating to others. If you’d like a clue, it comes down to words being used in unexpected ways.
The solution is this: the woman is a photographer, and when she “shoots” her husband, it’s with a camera. When she “holds him underwater for five minutes,” it’s really his photo that she is holding under developing solution in a dark room.
The solution emerges easily if we avoid leaping to assumptions (i.e. she shot him with a gun) and consider all possible meanings of the word “shoot” and the phrase “hold someone underwater.” The creative skill comes in seeing that shooting and holding underwater belong to a completely different conceptual framework.
The trick is not to assume that your kneejerk assumption—that she killed with a gun—is true. Reading the riddle again, you see no mention of a gun. In real life, don’t we all regularly assume what people mean when they use certain words or phrases? Couldn’t we solve so many problems or have so many insights if we were simply to become aware that our language was arbitrary, ambiguous—or even that we were using language in the first place?