They may seem hokey, bland and solely in the possession of your more boring relatives, but puzzles are rather crucial. They stop our brains turning to mush. So lay off.
We’ve often heard that keeping our brains active is one of the keys to good long-term mental health. The old “use it or lose it” argument is frequently trotted out to remind us that mental stimulation is not only good for us now, but can help stave off dementia once we get old.
Jigsaws, cryptic crosswords, Sudoku and other word or number puzzles have been shown to have at least some effectiveness in keeping our minds alert. Of course, there are lots of other factors to take into account, like general physical health, diet, exercise, alcohol intake, smoking, level of social engagement and so on. Taking on new activities, especially things we’ve never done before, can also help our memory and mental health. So learning a language, taking art classes or music lessons, joining a reading group or playing a video game can help keep us alert, interested and engaged.
Many video games require players to dodge virtual bullets, fire-breathing dragons, lava-filled pits and the like. Players are fully cognisant of the fact that they could “die” if their attention wavers just a little. Such games focus on the speed of the player’s reflexes and how quickly you can get from A to B without losing a life, so they earn points for upping your mental faculties. But relaxing they are not.
So let’s consider some of the less frantic puzzling pursuits, ones that can help you relax as you do them, ones that perhaps reduce your heart rate and allow you to take a breather.
Jigsaw puzzles are good for your brain because to put all the pieces in the right place exercises both the right and left brains. Put simply, the left brain is all about logic, analysis, linear thinking, while the right brain is concerned with emotions, imagination, intuition, creativity. When we’re looking at the pieces of a jigsaw, one part of our brain is figuring out the sequence of the broken image and the other part is visualising where it might go.
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The same can probably be said of solving cryptic crosswords. Sometimes the biggest challenge is to figure out what question is actually being asked. Clues are written in a kind of code, the solver must work to crack that code, so logic is involved as well as the creativity to think laterally. It’s much like solving a mystery. You can read more about solving cryptic crosswords here.
The challenge of inserting the numbers 1 to 9 into a nine-square grid containing nine smaller squares and making sure every number appears once in each square and horizontal and vertical line is what makes Sudoku so popular. It’s more about recognising patterns than being good at numbers and as such is another great brain sharpener.
Board games, chess, playing cards, online Scrabble and other games – there are plenty of activities to keep your brain stimulated. And don’t forget reading. We should all spend at least some time each day reading: it not only gives us pleasure, it also improves our knowledge – always a plus for a healthy brain.
Okay, so here we all are crosswording, Sudokuing and jigsawing and keeping our brains mentally sharp and improving the clarity of our thinking so that we hopefully don’t succumb to dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. But there’s more to doing puzzles than only being concerned about our future wellbeing.
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Many people enjoy puzzles for the challenges they bring, the enjoyment they provide and the fact that they allow us a few moments’ respite from the stresses of the world. Many puzzles can be done while drinking a cup of tea or perhaps a glass of wine; they can be done at the kitchen table or lying in bed – well, not the jigsaw obviously. There’s no deadline to finish your crossword or Sudoku and then there’s the warm sense of personal satisfaction you feel when you’ve solved the puzzle.
Many of us started doing puzzles when we were very small children. Jigsaws have long been an effective learning tool, promoting hand-eye coordination and visual recognition of shapes and colours while also fostering problem-solving skills. We weren’t aware of the mental benefits – doing jigsaws was simply fun, and that sense of fun has probably kept us engaged with puzzles as adults. As kids, we played find-a-word, join the dots, spot-the-difference, concentration, card games like “Snap”; we graduated to crosswords, trivia games, Sudoku, bridge and so on. The thing about puzzles is although we know they help keep our brains healthy, we do them because they’re also entertaining, amusing and relaxing. So while we’re concentrating on solving the conundrums posed by puzzles, even as our brains are focused on deciphering cryptic clues or figuring out which number to put into which box, we are also having a ball.
Taking on new activities and doing more puzzles may well ward off memory loss or dementia, but for many people that’s just a fortuitous side effect. It’s often about the pleasure the task gives us and that feeling of fulfilment we derive when we can tick off a puzzle as done and dusted.
There are online brain games as well as the more traditional pen and paper models. It doesn’t matter which you choose, as long as you feel challenged and you embrace your puzzle with both anticipation and joie de vivre. Go on, have a go.