Photo: AF-Photography (Shutterstock)
We know what you’re thinking. Jigsaw puzzles? What am I, 80? Well, hopefully you will be someday. So why not mentally prepare for it. Admittedly, jigsaw puzzles have a reputation as the domain of either the very old, the very young, or the incurably nerdy. To which we say: Yeah, so? Some started a podcast and made sourdough during the pandemic; we started a healthy addiction to puzzles. And with good reason: The act of doing jigsaw puzzles has myriad health benefits, some of which may surprise you.
Puzzles require our left (logical, analytical) and right (creative, intuitive) brains to work together. The act of picking up a piece and envisioning where it might go in the larger puzzle is like a trip to the mental gym. It requires neural connections between the two hemispheres and sped-up thought processes that improve short-term memory. (This is why they’re often used to combat cognitive decline in the elderly.)
According to a 2012 study published in the Archives of Neurology, elderly adults who kept their brains active with cognitively challenging activities like games and puzzles had less Beta-amyloid protein in their brains (a major component of the plaque that indicates Alzheimer’s disease).
Solving a puzzle takes a lot of trial and error. First you may try to fit a piece by color, then by shape, while constantly forming and revising small theories in your mind—all the while, reinforcing connections between brain cells. This translates to improved critical-thinking skills.
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Sometimes the only way to solve a puzzle is by staring at the same 50 pieces for an hour to discern tiny differences in shade or shape, or find the missing one-tenth of a person’s face. Scrutinizing pieces this closely requires a heightened attention to detail that can help the next time legal emails you a 30-page document to review.
The puzzles also improve visual-spatial reasoning; mentally calculating where pieces go in the larger puzzle flexes the visual-spatial reasoning muscle in our brain, a skill that’s used in packing, map reading, driving, and learning choreography.
Did you know the brain goes into a near dreamlike state when assembling a puzzle? According to Sanesco Health, an evidence-based medical researcher:
Exercising both sides of the brain simultaneously also allows the brain to move from a Beta state, the wakeful mind, into an “Alpha” state, the same mental state experienced while dreaming. The Alpha state is where we tap into our subconscious mind. Jigsaw puzzles naturally induce this state of creative, focused meditation, where connections can be made on deeper levels.
The rush you get from doing and completing puzzles is not just in your head. Well it is—but the pleasure and satisfaction you feel is backed by science.
While individual moments of puzzling may be temporarily—and mildly—frustrating, the overall experience of puzzle-solving is mood-boosting. Every time you put a piece in the right place, your brain releases dopamine, the neurotransmitter that makes you feel more happy and alert. Sanesco Health adds, “Dopamine causes improved motor skills, an increase in concentration, optimism, confidence, and an enhanced recollection.”
A low-cost, mood-boosting, memory-improving, stress-relieving activity that can give you a sense of happiness and accomplishment—without leaving your house? If you’re not doing puzzles, what are you doing?
Jigsaw puzzles can aid the development of children’s minds in numerous ways, too; from spatial and organizational skills to patience and self-control. They also help with concentration and improve fine motor skills. (Anything that can help them learn to fasten their own buttons, laces, and zippers? Winning.)