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Working out your BRAIN: The art of puzzling will never go out of style

09/19/2016 10:42AM ● Published by Jennifer Gonzalez

By Courtney Phillips 

In front of you are colors, shapes and textures. To get closer, you lean forward in your chair. Can any sense be made? You try one thing. Another. Does it work? You try again and again and again, until finally—success! In your brain, a surge of dopamine fires along your neural pathways. Your left brain, the home of logic and reasoning, celebrates with your right brain, home to spatial awareness and imagery. 

This is not a virtual reality experience; it’s the human body solving a jigsaw puzzle. Today’s technology of advanced entertainment is simply chasing after the high we used to receive when we were gathered around the card table working on a puzzle. Remember? Someone had made popcorn. The fire was lit. The cat hopped up and laid down right where you were working. Your brother was searching for the “edge” pieces. The box was propped up so you could get the picture just right.  

Sure, technology has allowed puzzling to be brought with you on-the-go and it may seem that today’s advanced technology entertainment antiquates good old-fashioned jigsaws, but the roots of puzzling are ancient, and it’s very healthy for the body.  

The concept of critical thinking for amusement is evident in the hieroglyphics on the walls of the Egyptian tombs. These ancient people busied themselves with Senet, a dice game, as early as 3500 BC. The Greeks loved to play dice, too. When the Parthenon was restored, more than fifty different games adorned the walls.  

Relative to modern history, the first jigsaw puzzle was created in 1766 by British cartographer John Spilsbury. He created the puzzle—a map—to teach geography. For nearly 100 years, jigsaw puzzles were primarily teaching tools.   

The most famous combination puzzle is the colorful Rubik’s Cube, which was created in 1974 by Ernő Rubik, a Hungarian architecture professor. To date, more than 350 million cubes have been sold, making it the best-selling toy of all time.  

For Your Health 

Research confirms that engaging in various forms of “puzzling” is good for the mind. Studies suggest that puzzles can rigorously exercise the brain staving off incurable neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.  

For those diagnosed with some form of dementia—and someone is diagnosed every three seconds—research is expensive and time consuming. To address cost and efficiency, European researchers developed a data-gathering puzzle game called Sea Hero Quest. Comprised of three main activities—navigating mazes, shooting flares to test players’ orientation and chasing creatures to capture photos—participants generate the same amount of data in two minutes of playing the game compared to the five hours of collection in a lab-based setting. This free game, which aids dementia research, can be downloaded to a desktop, tablet or phone at 

Puzzling for Kids 

Modern parenting carries a relatively new burden: limiting screen time. For many children, the glow of a tablet or smart phone has replaced the glow of a sunset or the pursuit of authentic relationships with peers. Parents can struggle to find quality substitutes to the alluring entertainment, and even educational options, available on tablets. Here are our favorite age-specific options to keep young minds engaged.   

Ages 0-4 

Durable, colorful, easy-to-manipulate puzzles develop problem-solving skills and hand-eye coordination. Let those little hands flip and turn the puzzle pieces. Kids might even gnaw on them, but that’s just more tactile fun.  

Younger children will benefit from matching animal or color puzzles that have knobs attached to individual pieces. A classic shape sorter is perfect for this age. Among parents of the preschool age group, a favorite brand is Melissa & Doug, an American manufacturer and purveyor of children’s educational toys, which come equipped with helpful activities and games to guide parent and child interaction. 

Older preschoolers can better grasp the “parts of a whole” concept and can begin working on more intricate designs, puzzles comprised of twenty or more pieces. Even if a child is engaged in a puzzle that appears too simple, it still reinforces memory and encourages imagination. Rotate a collection of five to six puzzles to keep children excited and engaged.  

Affordability is an additional benefit of non-battery-operated toys. Durable wooden puzzles can be purchased at children’s consignment shops, large-scale consignment sales, yard sales, thrift stores or even dollar stores.   

Ages 5-12 

Puzzles appeal to a variety of learning styles and can be an easy way to wind down after a long day. Grade schoolers can complete 100-piece jigsaw puzzles with little guidance. Crossword puzzles and word searches are great ways to reinforce early vocabulary and can be downloaded and printed for no cost. 

A combination puzzle like the aforementioned Rubik’s Cube is an appropriate novelty for this age group, or disentanglement puzzles like Chinese rings. According to legend, knights of the Middle Ages would present the rings to their wives before they left for battle, so they could occupy their time while alone. Why not try to occupy the mind of a mischief-prone middle-schooler? 

Ages 13+ 

It may be difficult to persuade a teen to sacrifice an evening of group texts and Snapchat in favor of a family game. If the allure of the phone is too powerful, there exist many highly-rated educational puzzling apps for teens and adults alike. Many are free to download and some are based on traditional games from around the world.  

Mahjong Solitaire 

Based on the matching game that has been played in China since the 18th century, Mahjong can be loosely compared to a draw and discard game, like Rummy, but with intricate tiles. Mahjong came to America in the 1920s and the first sets were sold by Abercrombie & Fitch. Lauded for its positive memory effects on mild-to-moderate dementia patients, Mahjong therapy is very popular in institutions as it requires no professional supervision and can be introduced at nearly no cost.  


Non Ishida, a Japanese graphics editor, created these puzzles in the 1980s. Also referred to as Hanjie, Picross (picture crossword) and Griddlers, the object is to correctly color or leave blank cells in a grid using numbers that run along the left side and top of the grid. Satisfyingly, the nonogram will reveal a hidden picture when complete. 

According to Tom’s Guide, an online technology review, one of the best new puzzling apps of 2016 is Prune (available for iOS and Android, $3.99).  Based on the peaceful art of bonsai, a player continually trims tree branches around objects and manages the environment of the plant. If pruned correctly, the puzzler will be rewarded with elegant, intricate blooms. 

Puzzles with Friends 

As pressure mounts to “unplug,” people try to balance their presence on social media with authentic interactions with others. Multiplayer puzzling apps offer a compromise. The ever-popular Words with Friends allows players to take turns building words in a manner similar to Scrabble, the classic board game. If words aren’t your strong suit, challenge a friend to slide blocks to create shapes in Doodle Fit 2: Around the World. 

For classic good old-fashioned face-to-face camaraderie, try hosting a game night. A simple search on Pinterest will reveal a variety of options for hosting a puzzle-themed party, from jigsaw ice cube trays to puzzle sandwich cutter sets. If hosting doesn’t appeal, seek out a gaming group that meets locally. Check or Facebook for groups in your area.  

While gathering around a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle during the holidays may be regarded as a novelty of the past, health and amusement will never go out of style. Happy puzzling!  

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