Prescription for Puzzles: The Health Benefits to Jigsaw Puzzles

by Corey Whelen
1 May 2020

Centering is a common calming and focusing technique used to handle stressful situations, usually panic or anxiety attacks. The idea is to force yourself to live in the moment by taking deep breaths and focusing on your immediate environment: what you can see, what you can hear, what you can feel. By focusing on the concrete details of your surroundings, you eliminate a lot of other stressors. You stop thinking about your bills, your emails, your responsibilities, and you just focus on being alive and conscious. You distract your mind, in a sense, and free yourself from a lot of external anxieties.

Victoria Garcia Unsplash image And Breathe on plants

This technique can be a lifesaver for people with mental illnesses, and I believe it relates in part to why puzzles have remained consistently popular over the last century, and their incredible resurgence these last few months. Puzzles are engaging; they relax and reward you with the immediate gratification of seeing the picture come together. Much like centering, puzzling helps your problems melt away. Our brains actually produce alpha brain waves when we work on puzzles, as opposed to the beta waves we usually produce while awake- this is similar to how our brain behaves when we’re dreaming, and being in this state helps improve our mood, increases our confidence, and it can even lower our blood pressure! Clinical neuropsychologist Dr. Susan Vandermorris says it best: “If you’re physically doing a paper or cardboard puzzle, you are, by definition, disconnected and engaged in a task that’s immersive, away from the interruptions and stresses of day-to-day life. And that, of course, is good for your brain health.”

 Photo by processingly on Unsplash Lady at beach

Relaxation, stress relief, and, of course, entertainment are obvious positives to puzzling, but some of the biggest benefits to your mental health can be less obvious. Did you know that puzzles can help your critical thinking? Or your memory? Solving puzzles is a fantastic way to build up your short-term memory, since you’re constantly recalling pieces you’ve seen and visualizing pieces you’re trying to match. This can have a dramatic effect on your thought processes and recall speed. Solving puzzles also increases your brain’s production of dopamine, an incredibly important neurotransmitter that is usually attributed with regulating our happiness. Increasing our dopamine production helps us remain optimistic, concentrate longer, and self-motivate, side effects that can have countless positive repercussions in our lives. 

The University of Michigan actually ran a study that proved twenty-five minutes a day solving riddles and puzzles can increase your IQ by up to 4 points. Puzzles are considered a complete brain exercise since it requires both the right and left parts of your brain to work together. Forming a picture and matching colours appeals to the left, creative side of the brain, while matching patterns and fitting pieces together is more of a logical right brain activity. Activities that force both sides of your brain to work together increase cognitive function and activate the occipital lobe. All of this brain activity helps prevent cognitive decline, which makes puzzles a fantastic activity for aging minds. Keeping your brain active is critical to delaying symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s. Puzzles help reduce the amount of brain cell damage these conditions can cause while helping create new nerve connections while strengthening existing ones. 

Elderly couple doing Cobble Hill puzzle

Not only are puzzles great for older brains, they’re also amazing for growing minds! They can help children develop mental skills like organization and concentration, as well as emotional skills like patience, self-control, and confidence. Along with the physical coordination required, these skills are useful not only for children, but they can also make a world of difference in occupational and physical therapy, for people recovering from trauma to the hands, fingers, or even the brain. Puzzles innately impart your brain with essential skills, whether you’re learning them for them for the first time or relearning them for the hundredth. 

Without downplaying the unexpected stressors of these last few months, it’s easy to see why more and more people are turning to puzzles as a leisure pursuit. Puzzles historically rise in popularity in times of economic hardship, dating back to the Great Depression, when the affordability of recently invented cardboard puzzles led to a surge in puzzle manufacturing. Puzzles helped people stretch their money at a time when spare cash was hard to come by. Weekly puzzles were sold at the local newsstand. Puzzles could be done together or shared amongst friends like a good book. People talk over puzzles, people bond over puzzles, and people make friends over puzzles. 

Given the state of the news, it’s easy to understand why puzzles are more popular than ever. There’s a lot of bad news happening that we have very little control over; people are looking for a way to disconnect and start to put the pieces back together. With the way the world is right now, we have to prioritize ourselves and our mental care; a prescription for puzzles might be the kindest thing we can do for our mind right now!