Did you know puzzling improves our use of the trial and error method, problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and visual/spatial reasoning skills? Particularly challenging puzzles can even change the patterns of brain activity. Most brain activity follows certain specific pathways, including when you’re puzzling. However, if you begin a jigsaw, crossword, or Sudoku that’s above your usual skill level, you will probably have to activate some new parts of your brain in order to solve it.
But what’s really going on up in our noggins that allows all of this to occur? The answer is still not entirely clear, even though psychologists and other professionals have been studying the thinking involved in solving puzzles for decades. Marcel Danesi, a professor of semiotics and anthropology at the University of Toronto and the author of “The Total Brain Workout: 450 Puzzles to Sharpen Your Mind, Improve Your Memory, and Keep Your Brain Fit,” is one of them. After working with brain-damaged children in Italy in the mid-1980s, he became interested in what exactly happens in the human mind when puzzling.
Danesi often speaks and writes about the suggestion that puzzles can improve cognitive function and help prevent the loss of brainpower. Puzzling is thought to reinforce the connection between existing brain cells and form new ones, which improves memory. If you’re a puzzler, you have probably felt yourself using memory to complete a jigsaw. Remembering shapes, sizes, and colors is key to visualizing pieces and where they fit in. Then, upon each successful placement of a piece, you experience an “aha moment.”
While many people have personal experience with these feelings, and society generally believes that the more hobbies you participate in that require deeper thinking the more likely you will be able to stay sharp as you age, most of the supporting evidence is merely anecdotal. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean the evidence is invalid. It’s simply lacking in hard and fast statistics. In fact, Danesi himself has puzzle success stories.
“There is little doubt in my mind that puzzles are beneficial, ambiguous empirical findings aside. I saw this with my own eyes within my own family,” he wrote in a Psychology Today article. “I once suggested to an ailing relative, who suffered from a serious brain-degenerative disease, to engage in crosswords and Sudoku. He had never done puzzles in his life. His doctor immediately saw a significant slowing down of the degeneration. The relative eventually died of the disease, but I am convinced that his newly-found passion for puzzles delayed his eventual loss of consciousness.”
Even Rob Gronkowski, star tight end who helped the New England Patriots win three Super Bowls, has his own anecdotal evidence. Gronkowski estimates he has suffered at least 20 concussions throughout his career. The physical and emotional toll football took on his body has been cited as a factor in his decision to retire early in 2019. After that, one of the hobbies he picked up was puzzling, which he claims has helped him recover mentally and has improved his problem-solving skills. He spent a year consciously taking care of himself, puzzling being a part of that, and in 2020 he felt well enough to come back and play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers!
Now, there are a few things psychologists know for sure are happening in the brain when we puzzle…
- Both hemispheres of the brain activate. Each hemisphere controls different functions; the left side controls analytic and logical thinking and the right side controls creativity. As you can probably guess, not every activity is able to engage both sides. When you consider that memory also comes into play, puzzling becomes an even more impressive hobby. It’s basically a “total body workout” for your brain.
- We engage in a mental hunt. This brain activity is familiar and engaging to humans, from hunter-gatherers to detectives, to scientists testing hypotheses, to mystery novel readers and true crime podcast listeners. Danesi refers to puzzles as “small-scale versions of this ‘quest for understanding’” and says, “It is the hunt itself that is likely to stimulate various areas of the brain that involve discovery and a sense of satisfaction at once.”
- Dopamine rushes to our nucleus accumbens. Don’t worry, we’ll break that down. Dopamine is often referred to as a “happy hormone.” It also gets released when you take that first sip of wine, eat your favorite food, and watch your team win the big game. (Imagine doing all three of those things and a puzzle in one day? Now that’s living the dream!) The nucleus accumbens is the area of the brain responsible for rewards and reinforcement. So, puzzling basically activates the reward and pleasure center of your brain. However, if you’re already a puzzler you don’t need scientific proof of that. You’re probably already well aware of that amazing feeling you get upon placing the final piece.
It’s true that nobody can say, “If you puzzle, you will not get Alzheimer’s.” Well, anybody can say that, but there is not enough empirical evidence to back it up currently. What we do know is that puzzling is a rewarding hobby that certainly requires you to use your brain. Also, most importantly, it’s fun!