Riddle me this: are puzzles good for the brain?

Puzzles are great for improving concentration and also help boost your mental ability

Those little bursts of joy at finishing a puzzle can help calm your mind, in much the same way that physical exercise can mentally relax you too.

Those little bursts of joy at finishing a puzzle can help calm your mind, in much the same way that physical exercise can mentally relax you too.

 

Everyone needs to take a break sometimes, but it can be really hard to put aside the distractions of life. Even when you try to clear your mind, all the everyday pressures and worries can’t help but creep back and disturb your peace.

It would really help if you could find some activity which is both simultaneously relaxing and also great at helping you avoid distractions, but with a bit more mental benefit than just slumping in front of a TV. Luckily, just such an activity exists: puzzle solving.

It’s no surprise that puzzles in all forms, from newspaper crosswords through to dedicated puzzle books, are permanently popular. Since ancient times we’ve liked to set ourselves riddles and challenges, but there’s never been such a wide range of fun and accessible puzzles as we now have. Many of them, such as sudoku, don’t require any knowledge at all, so are true levellers – anyone can tackle them, no matter their age or experience. And, while you’re focused on solving a puzzle, you’re far less likely to be distracted by other concerns – so you get a chance to have the break you need.

This process can work in reverse too. Just as solving puzzles involves shutting out distractions to focus on the puzzle in hand, so in turn the very act of solving puzzles helps you get better at concentrating and maintaining focus in general. Being able to take a mental break is important, and can help reduce stress by allowing your brain a chance to recover from whatever pressures you are currently under.

Puzzles aren’t just great for improving concentration, but can also help boost your mental abilities. Your brain loves to learn, and that includes the skills you’ll need to solve a sudoku, crack a calcudoku or fill in a futoshiki. This suggests that you should tackle as many different types of puzzle as you can, and ignore the temptation to stick to what you already know. In other words, you’ll get the greatest mental benefit by solving puzzles you haven’t tried before.

What’s more, you also learn best while you’re relaxed and happy – so the natural fun and enjoyment of the puzzle-solving process helps make the mental benefits even more significant. That’s where books such as my Paper, Pencil and You series comes in – each book is packed from cover to cover with a huge range of puzzle types, covering a wide variety of mental skills and designed for all abilities.

A good puzzle will challenge you just the right amount, so it’s neither trivially easy nor ridiculously hard, and is designed to be solved. The setter doesn’t want you to be stuck forever, after all. There’s something deeply satisfying about filling in the last box in a crossword, placing the last digit into a sudoku grid, or finding the final difference in a picture puzzle. As you complete each puzzle, your brain gets a little reward of dopamine, creating a pleasurable feeling of satisfaction – and this in turn encourages your brain to learn more strongly from the deductions you just made, which creates a virtuous cycle of mental improvement.

Your brain loves this mental pat on the back, and it can help make life’s larger problems somehow seem easier to tackle. What’s more, those little bursts of joy at finishing a puzzle can help calm your mind, in much the same way that physical exercise can mentally relax you too.

It’s not just about improving your reasoning skills, either. You need to look after your brain just as much as your body – if not even more, since after all without your brain you wouldn’t be capable of doing anything at all!

Your brain reaches its mental peak at around age 25, and then from there onwards it’s all downhill – albeit gently, at least until very old age – so you need to do everything you can to counteract the natural effects of ageing. Luckily, the greater experience you gain with age will usually offset the gradual decrease in raw thinking power, but by deliberately challenging yourself on a regular basis you can help preserve the mental abilities you still have. There’s real truth in the “use it or lose it” maxim. And, at least for certain functions, you can even grow new brain cells as you learn, which in turn can help replace those you lose naturally through the passage of time.

Dedicated brain-training programmes exist, but what’s truly important is to challenge yourself in as wide a range of ways as possible. So whether that’s learning a new language, travelling to new places and seeing new sights, or of course tackling a puzzle, then so long as you’re still challenging yourself then that’s all you need. It also really helps if you enjoy the challenge, which is why puzzles are particularly good – that burst of satisfaction on completion is important, and your brain doesn’t learn so well if you aren’t enjoying an activity.

If you aren’t a regular puzzle solver, you might wonder where it’s best to start – but the truth is that there’s no fixed answer to this question. If you enjoy riddles and word puzzles, then a crossword is always a great place to begin, or if you prefer more directly logic-based challenges then there’s a reason why sudoku is so ubiquitous. It’s also worth noting that, despite the numbers, sudoku puzzles have nothing to do with maths. You could replace each digit with a different picture and it would still be the same puzzle. But if you do like maths then there are arithmetic puzzles too, such as kakuro or killer sudoku.

Once you’ve started the puzzle habit, it’s important not to get stuck in your ways – remember the need for continual challenge, so once you’ve mastered sudoku (or whatever you prefer) then find another puzzle type and try that. Or if you’re working through a puzzle book then at least have a go at all the different varieties, since often you’ll get the greatest mental challenge from the ones you initially find toughest.

So next time you’re feeling stressed, are finding it hard to concentrate, or are simply having trouble relaxing, try picking up your pencil, the newspaper - or a good puzzle book - and start solving. And remember – it’s both fun and good for your brain too!
Dr Gareth Moore’s Paper, Pencil & You series is published by Quercus (£8.99).

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