How Puzzling!

If you stop and think about it for a moment, solving puzzles is a pretty strange pastime. We spend hours reconstructing a fragmented image or untwisting a multicolored cube or filling in numbers on a grid. To what end?

Yet there’s something so compelling about puzzles that keeps us coming back for more, and it turns out that the act of solving puzzles bestows an array of physical, cognitive, and spiritual benefits.

Dating back to 1762, jigsaw puzzles were first introduced by British cartographer John Spilsbury as an educational tool to teach geography. Spilsbury mounted European maps on wood, cut along country borders, and offered these “dissected maps” to local schools. By the 1800s, puzzles became popular with adults as well as children, with more complex cut patterns and vivid lithographic printing of diverse images. These became known as “jigsaw” puzzles in the 1880s, named after the device with fine teeth used to cut the curved pieces. American companies began to mass produce puzzles in the 1930s, mounted on cardboard instead of wood. During the Great Depression, jigsaw puzzles surged in popularity, offering an inexpensive pastime during a difficult period.

Today jigsaw puzzles are available in all shapes and sizes, with laser cut pieces, custom images, three-dimensional designs, and more. The largest puzzle in the world has over 40,000 pieces, which the current record-winning puzzler (technically called a  “dissectologist”) completed in 150 hours. Sometimes, puzzling can be a feverish rush of activity; at other times, it’s a more meditative experience of trying to fit together tabs and blanks of indistinguishable color and pattern. Like so many others, my family immersed itself in 1,000-piece puzzles while we were quarantined at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. We dumped out the tiny pieces, flipped them picture side up, found and connected edges, and then assembled the more difficult center sections. The whole experience provided hours of entertainment, valuable time with family members, and — eventually — the satisfaction of a job well done.

Hungarian professor Erno Rubik created a twistable multicolored cube in 1974 to help his architecture students understand three-dimensional objects. By 1980, the Rubik’s Cube was licensed as a toy, and over the next three years 200 million of these colorful mechanical puzzles were sold worldwide. I recall the Rubik’s craze of the 1980s well. We consumed hours on end trying to get the nine stickers on each of the cube faces back to a singular color by twisting sections in different directions. I was never able to solve the entire cube (without the aid of the best-selling step-by-step book published in 1981). Today, the speed record for solving a Rubik’s Cube is 3.47 seconds, and competitions abound for blindfolded, one-handed, and feet solving. The Rubik’s Cube has become the bestselling toy and puzzle game of all time, providing entertainment and aiding in concentration, agility, and muscle memory.

New York World editor Arthur Wynne introduced the “word-cross” as a new game for the fun section of his newspaper. First published in 1913, it presented as a diamond-shaped grid with numbered clues. The object, of course, is to fill in the grid with words or phrases that solve the clues. Soon crossword puzzles (as they were renamed) were in every U.S. newspaper and not long after across Europe and beyond. Crosswords became a daily feature in the New York Times in 1950, with puzzles getting trickier as the week progresses, the Sunday Times puzzle being the most notoriously challenging. Crosswords are available now in books and online and come in various styles and forms. There are tournaments, world-record holders, and leader boards, all celebrating the accomplishments of puzzlers whose mental agility allows them to recall facts, decode riddles, and solve puns at breakneck speed. Personally, I struggle with crosswords, often getting stuck and rarely completing a puzzle, so when a friend from college recently shared that he’d completed 1,000 consecutive New York Times crossword puzzles, I was duly impressed.

I’ve always enjoyed logic puzzles in which there is just enough information to solve a riddle or problem. First introduced by Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll, famed author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) in the 1880s, these logic puzzles require puzzlers to use deductive reasoning to arrive at logical conclusions from a list of premises. Here’s an example of premises from Dodgson: “(1) Babies are illogical. (2) Nobody is despised who can manage a crocodile. (3) Illogical persons are despised.” The deduced conclusion? “Babies cannot manage crocodiles.” (These “syllogisms” — logical arguments based on deductive reasoning — date all the way back to the age of Aristotle; Dodgson added mathematical rigor and turned it into a game.) Grids are helpful in arriving at a conclusion from a set of clues; if Mary wore the green shirt, and the person with the green shirt was not the one riding the bike, then Mary clearly was not the person who got into the bike crash. This was always my favorite type of puzzle in GAMES magazine, and as a kid I would flip through my monthly subscription looking for logic grids — the bigger the better. I didn’t need to have any prior knowledge, I just had to follow the clues and systematically fill in the grid with information provided, and I would arrive — like magic! — at the answer.

My favorite numbers-based puzzle is Sudoku. Typically arranged in a nine-by-nine grid, the rules are simple: Fill in each column, row, and three-by-three block with the digits 1 through 9, without repeating numbers in any direction. The provided puzzle has some filled in squares, and puzzlers must complete the remaining blanks. It’s essentially a game of logic and number placement — no higher math is required, no general knowledge or fact recall, just some patience, rigor, and a bit of skill. These number puzzles date back to the 18th century, though they didn’t gain popularity until 1986 when Japanese game maker Nikoli marketed it as Sudoku meaning “single number.” Today Sudoku is a popular pastime in Japan and all over the world, crossing languages and cultures; it is published in more than 600 newspapers, is the topic of over 200 books, and is widely available online. I’ll often grab a book of Sudoku puzzles when we head out to an event or restaurant; it’s a fun way to use up wait time, even for my youngest child who got the hang of it by age eight.

Each of these puzzles is a bit different, but they all involve concentration, critical thinking, problem solving, and attention to detail. Solving puzzles offers a variety of benefits to people of all ages:

Physical benefits. Puzzles build muscle memory through repetition. Children as young as two years old develop fine motor skills, shape recognition, and spatial awareness by doing jigsaw puzzles. Early puzzle play has been connected with higher spatial transformation skills, which are essential for everything from navigating environments to performing higher-level mathematics. Solving mechanical puzzles like the Rubik’s Cube improves reflexes, dexterity, and agility.

Cognitive benefits. Puzzles are exercises for the mind — cognitive workouts of sorts. They require concentration and mental sharpness. Studies have shown that doing such puzzles can improve reasoning, mental speed, and short- and long-term memory. They help a young brain develop and grow, and they help older brains maintain executive function. A 2011 study determined that regular crossword puzzle activity may delay the onset of memory decline. Cognitive scientist Jeremy Grabbe found that playing Sudoku improves working memory performance in older adults. A 2019 study found that adults aged 50 to 93 who did frequent number puzzles had higher cognitive function. My 80-year-old father’s neurologist prescribed cognitive therapy — essentially doing puzzles — to enhance his mental acuity; after two months of puzzling, his cognitive assessment has appreciably improved.

Spiritual benefits. There is something utterly gratifying about solving puzzles. Each time we fit a piece of a puzzle together, a little bit of dopamine is released in our brains, giving us a boost of positive energy. Puzzles have been shown to decrease stress levels and help manage anxiety and depression. They keep our hands busy, help us relax, and keep boredom at bay. Puzzles are great for alone time — giving us a healthy alternative to doomscrolling on social media or passively watching videos. They can help us learn to overcome frustrations and build confidence. And they can spark our imagination, increasing creativity and productivity.

As a scientist and technologist, I’m fortunate that I get to solve puzzles for a living. Every day, I work to fit metaphorical pieces together and deduce solutions to complex problems. It’s challenging and rewarding and wonderfully puzzling.

One thought on “How Puzzling!

  1. Awesome Sudoku .. I am surprised you get stuck on crosswords.. your such an awesome writer…and great with words!!

    Totally agree on the benefits.. and why !!


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