Do Word Puzzles Keep Your Mind Sharp Or Not?

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For years, companies have been encouraging adults to engage in regular “brain training” to train their neurons, just like their muscles, and make them stronger. But the relationship between solving puzzles and cognitive performance is anything but clear cut. Doing crosswords doesn’t seem to have a one-to-one relationship with the sharpness of our minds. So what the heck is going on? 

What Does The Evidence Say? 

When psychologists and brain researchers examined the question, they found conflicting results. A 2001 study in Brain and Cognition, for instance, found that as people get older, they perform worse on games designed to test working memory. Younger subjects almost always had the upper hand.

A study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology from 1999 found that older people who do crosswords don’t experience any reduction in the speed of cognitive decline. So, the researchers concluded that the brain might not be analogous to muscle tissue at all. 

But then another study in Psychology of Aging in 2000, found that doing crosswords regularly did, in fact, reduce the speed of memory loss as people get older.

So what the heck is going on here? Can you really train your brain like the rest of your body to keep it youthful?

The Importance Of Hidden Information

Although the science is mixed, some researchers think that certain types of word puzzles can actually help cognition. 

Consider a riddle, “what is full of holes but still carries water?” 

You can’t just read the statement and then think it through analytically to solve it. You won’t get anywhere. No matter how long you stare at it, the answer won’t pop out at you from the words on the page. 

Instead, you have to think “out of the box,” drawing on your knowledge of context. Eventually, if you think broadly enough, the idea of a sponge will enter your mind, and you will solve the riddle. 

The cognitive processes here are profound. Not only do you have to unscramble the problem, but you also have to open yourself up to novel ideas. Otherwise, you can’t resolve the riddle at all. It is a necessary part of the process. 

Finding hidden information is essentially what riddles are all about. They appear to allude to something that doesn’t make sense on the surface, but that can be resolved with the right idea. 

Riddles have appealed to people down the centuries, partly because their solutions are so unexpected and novel. You get a buzz of satisfaction when you solve one that makes you want to go on and do the next. 

Word puzzles, like riddles, therefore, could help train the mind by creating new connections in a way that many other types of problems don’t. Perhaps that’s why there have been mixed results in the literature. Performing rote calculations (in sudoku, for instance) uses well-worn neural pathways. But solving a riddle necessarily implies having to come up with an entirely novel solution. 

What do you think? Can solving riddles make you a better thinker overall? 


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