How Guessing Works

Can you guess how many candies are in each jar? Chefshots - Eric Futran/Getty Images Can you guess how many candies are in each jar? Chefshots - Eric Futran/Getty Images
Can you guess how many candies are in each jar? Chefshots - Eric Futran/Getty Images

Life is sort of like one big guessing game. All day long, we venture guesses about everything from the mundane, like calling heads or tails on a coin toss, to guessing someone's height to more nuanced speculations, such as a person's true intentions. Much as we hate to admit it, humans don't actually know everything, especially when multiple variables are involved. That's when the act of guessing comes into play.

"Before books, before libraries, before Google, guessing was the only way humans navigated in the world," explains David Ezell, CEO and clinical director of counseling and mental wellness group, Darien Wellness in Darien, Connecticut. (As a cognitive behavioral therapist, he says he talks to people all day long about how they guess and how those guesses affect them). "Throughout the days, thousands of decisions had to be made with little or no facts. So, guessing was the way humans decided to eat a red berry (or not), or go down the left path instead of the right."

The exact mechanisms behind how our brains land on one guess or another are not technically known yet. "There isn't really the neuroscience to say this pathway or that. The brain is very interconnected and this is sort of a global process," says Dr. Gail Saltz, psychiatrist and the author of "The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius.'"

Certain types of guesses do benefit from specific areas of the brain, even though they're probably not the only parts involved. "The cerebral cortex or cerebellum has been demonstrated to be involved in hunches. Neuroscientists have long known that guessing generally involves the activation of regions distributed throughout the brain," says Dr. Ben Michaelis, clinical psychologist and creator of the One Minute Diagnosis website in an email interview. "When you are guessing about visual subjects your frontal lobe and occipital lobe are activated. When you are guessing about numerical quantities the superior parietal lobe has been shown to be activated."

This isn't terribly surprising, as the parietal lobe is associated with a lot of capabilities that influence guessing, such as spatial position, object identification and body navigation. The frontal lobe is responsible for personality, sense of smell and movement, and the occipital lobe handles vision. The temporal lobe can affect guessing success, since it's in charge of memory, as well as speech [source: Johns Hopkins Medicine].