S2E6. Real-Life Wordle

A week ago Thursday, Sally tried to print the New York Times crossword puzzle. Unexpectedly, the page that came out was blank, so she asked me if I could do it.

First, I tried to print it from my computer in order to rule out that the problem was with Sally’s MacBook Pro, but I got a blank page, too. Then I tried printing a different page from my computer to rule out that the problem was with the Times website.

Same result.

Then I turned the printer off and waited a minute before re-starting it. Another blank page emerged, so I knew the problem wasn’t with the printer’s software.

Next I tried to copy a page directly from the printer’s flatbed.

Whoa! It printed the colors but the black was missing. At that point it dawned on me that I had been getting blank sheets because the pages I had been trying to print were in black-and-white and the black ink wasn’t printing.

I checked the ink level and and, unexplicably, it showed the black cartridge was more than half-full. Odd…

But I replaced the cartridge anyway and…it printed perfectly!

A few hours later, it occurred to me that the process I used to solve the problem was a lot like playing Wordle. If you haven’t tried it yet, here’s a link that explains it.

Basically, the Wordle program selects a 5-letter word each day at random and you have 6 guesses to figure out what it is. You receive feedback after each guess telling you which letters (if any) are in the target word and whether you’ve guessed the right locations for any of those letters. You solve the puzzle by using the information you learn from each guess in order to make your next guess. I’ve been able to solve them all since I started playing and it usually takes me four guesses…but it’s the thinking it through that’s fun!

Can you see why fixing the printer reminded me of Wordle? Each attempt I made to print the crossword provided me with new information that I used to create the next attempt. With each try, I learned what was not the problem, thereby narrowing my remaining choices until I hit upon the solution.

(Yes, yes…I know…If I started out by trying to print a picture in color, I would have solved the problem in 2 tries instead of 5!)

So why am I writing about fixing printers and playing word games? Because they both rely on executive functioning, in this case, the ability to develop and implement a strategy and to learn from new information.

In dementia, it’s not just memory that goes. It also hits your prefrontal cortex and impairs your reasoning and ability to execute complex tasks. Typical symptoms are having trouble balancing your checkbook or following a recipe correctly. 

Having played it for a month now, I’m thinking that Wordle might be a good measure of executive functioning that could be used as an early warning sign for mild cognitive impairment. Here’s why:

For a simple game, it’s actually a pretty challenging cognitive task. You have to learn from each trial and apply that information to your next guess. You have to focus on—not only the letters that are part of the solution—-but on those that you have been told are NOT part of the solution. And you have to pay attention to location, as well. 

Because all the information from each guess is available to you on your device all the time, short-term memory is not a major contributor to solving the puzzle. The game really isolates two factors: your executive functioning and your ability to recall words. Both are affected in dementia.

As I do the puzzle each day, I have to take my time because I make a lot of mistakes. (Fortunately, a guess is not recorded until you hit the ‘return’ key, so you have time to correct errors.) I’ll get excited about a guess and then realize it uses a letter that I already know is not part of the solution. Or I’ll place one of the letters in the solution in a position that I know it can not occupy. Or worse yet, I’ll come up with a word that does not use all the letters I already know are part of the answer. 

Can you see how easy it is to make mistakes? Can you see how critical it is to check and double check your guesses before submitting them? Can you see how the errors you make in Wordle might translate into the kinds of real-life errors you make around the house?

I hope there are neuropsychologists out there running experiments to test whether performance on Wordle is correlated with cognitive decline. If so, I can’t wait to see the results!