Are Puzzles Good for Your Brain? Here’s How They Benefit Your Cognitive Development

Posted by Cory Krygier on

It’s believed that the first jigsaw puzzle was created in the late 18th century, and it’s no mystery why they remain popular to this day. Many of us are drawn to jigsaw puzzles as an entertaining challenge, an escape from life’s stressors. 

But what you may not know is that puzzles are good for your brain, too. In fact, they’re very good for your brain.

We know a lot more about puzzling today than we did in the late 18th century. The benefits of puzzling for your brain is a topic backed up by quite a bit of scientific research. 

While you pored over your favourite puzzle, we’ve pored over the research papers. In this blog post, we’ll lay out some of what science says about the brain-boosting benefits of your favourite hobby. Spoiler alert: puzzles are better for you than you think.

The science behind puzzles and brain health

Cognitive enhancement through puzzles

When we engage with puzzles, we're not simply fitting pieces together — a whole lot more is happening in our heads. 

Puzzles are a workout for our brains. They reinforce neural connections that already exist and encourage the formation of new ones. These neural connections give us what’s called “cognitive flexibility” (Fissler et. al, 2018), a skill that enables us to approach problems from various angles and come up with innovative solutions. 

A study by Tranter and Koutstaal (2008) sought to prove this theory. They found that when testing older adults who had spent a lot of time puzzling, “engagement in new and challenging pursuits can lead to much more flexible and adaptive thinking than might be expected based on the standard view of cognitive aging.” (p. 17). 

In other words, older puzzlers were more likely to be adaptable than their non-puzzler counterparts. This shows that puzzles keep our brains sharp and nimble as we age, allowing us to handle tough situations with ease. 

Puzzles are a fantastic tool for improving our problem-solving skills, but the benefits don’t end here! Next, we’ll get into how puzzles can improve our memory.

Memory improvement and puzzles

When completing a jigsaw puzzle, you are tapping into your memory. You have to remember how pieces fit together, and which pieces you've already tried. This skill, in turn, sharpens our memory, both short-term and long-term (Fissler et. al, 2018). 

How does this benefit you? Regular puzzlers often find they remember things more clearly and quickly. This skill also ties in closely with our visual-spatial reasoning. Any time you've navigated through a city or packed a suitcase efficiently, you've used this skill. 

Developing these skills not only helps tone our brains, but brings us the satisfaction of completion. Overall, puzzling helps enhance our brain health in a fun and engaging way.

In addition to the cognitive benefits we’ve discussed so far, puzzles can offer a great escape from life’s stressors. More on that next.

Mental health benefits of puzzles

Stress reduction and mood enhancement

According to a recent Gallup poll, stress levels have been climbing. In fact, the world is more stressed now than ever before. To make bad news worse, chronic stress can increase cognitive aging and dementia in the long term. 

But there’s good news here – puzzling is a scientifically proven stress reliever. No, really! 

Puzzling can regulate distressing emotions, like stress, in two main ways (Fissler et. al, 2018). First, through what’s called “leisure-palliative coping”. This is a fancy way of saying that it demands your full attention, not giving your brain any space to dwell on stress. 

Second, it does so by enhancing your mood through fun, flow, and mastery experience. Together, these two benefits help you feel relaxed and content well after you’ve packed the puzzle away.

The role of puzzles in anxiety and depression

To date, there aren’t any conclusive studies done on the direct impact of jigsaw puzzles on treating depression or anxiety disorders. However, there is evidence that engaging in activities you enjoy can be beneficial for those who suffer from these disorders.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and depression are usually characterized by a low level of “feel-good” hormones like dopamine. Completing a puzzle can activate the reward centre of your brain. This results in the release of dopamine (Bromberg-Martin et. al, 2010), which triggers feelings of happiness, relaxation, and satisfaction. 

While more studies need to be done on this topic, there is lots of promising research on our next puzzling benefit: Puzzling and Alzheimer's prevention.

Puzzles and Alzheimer’s disease

Did you know that when you puzzle regularly, you’re investing in your long-term brain health?  Those who puzzle often are likely to experience delayed/lessened symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia (Schultz et. al, 2015). 

To dive into the science behind this exciting research, we’ll share two groundbreaking studies. We’ll have to get into some medical jargon here, but stick with us – it’s worth reading. 

Research studies

In one study, beginning in 2001 and published in 2015, Schultz et. al studied a population of middle-aged adults at an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease. The goal of this study was to see if puzzling affected cognitive decline. The findings are fascinating. Those who reported puzzling more had more grey matter in several critical brain regions affected by Alzheimer’s! Specifically, the hippocampus, posterior cingulate, anterior cingulate, and middle frontal gyrus. 

The capacity within these structures is referred to as “cognitive reserve”. Those with higher cognitive reserve from puzzling can better withstand the neurological damage associated with ageing and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s Disease. This potentially delays the onset and severity of symptoms.

Another study by Valenzuela et. al (2008), tested the impacts of mentally stimulating activities on the brain. Specifically, they wanted to know if activities like puzzling had an impact on the Hippocampus. Hippocampal degeneration is one of the first indicators of Alzheimer’s disease. Based on their 3-year study, healthy adults who engaged often with mentally stimulating activities showed significantly less hippocampal degeneration.

What does this mean? Although there is more research needed, the results are promising. Scientists are cautiously optimistic that age-related cognitive decline can be slowed or even partially restored if people engage in mentally stimulating activities regularly – like puzzling!

Finally, make it social! You may be someone who prefers the camaraderie of tackling a puzzle with others, and that’s A-OK. 

Conclusion

So there you have it! The benefits of puzzling are backed by research and science. As if you needed another excuse to treat yourself to a new puzzle!

Ready to challenge your brain and take advantage of all the benefits of puzzling outlined in this blog? Dive into our collection of wooden jigsaw puzzles to start your journey.

References

Bromberg-Martin, E. S., Matsumoto, M., & Hikosaka, O. (2010). Dopamine in motivational control: Rewarding, aversive, and alerting. Neuron, 68(5), 815-834. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuron.2010.11.022

Fissler, P., Küster, O. C., Laptinskaya, D., Loy, L. S., von Arnim, C. A. F., & Kolassa, I.-T. (2018). Jigsaw puzzling taps multiple cognitive abilities and is a potential protective factor for cognitive aging. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnagi.2018.00299

McDonough, I. M., Haber, S., Bischof, G. N., & Park, D. C. (2015). Cognitive engagement, fMRI, intervention, learning, semantic processing. Restorative Neurology and Neuroscience, 33(6), 865-882. https://doi.org/10.3233/RNN-150533

Schultz, S. A., Larson, J., Oh, J., Koscik, R., Dowling, M. N., Gallagher, C. L., Carlsson, C. M., Rowley, H. A., Bendlin, B. B., Asthana, S., Hermann, B. P., Johnson, S. C., Sager, M., LaRue, A., & Okonkwo, O. C. (2015). Participation in cognitively-stimulating activities is associated with brain structure and cognitive function in preclinical Alzheimer’s disease. Brain Imaging and Behavior, 9(6), 729–736. https://ahs.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ccm&AN=111244201&site=ehost-live&scope=site

Thompson, G., & Foth, D. (2005). Cognitive-training programs for older adults: What are they and can they enhance mental fitness? Educational Gerontology, 31(8), 603-626. https://doi.org/10.1080/03601270591003364

Tranter, L. J., & Koutstaal, W. (2007). Age and flexible thinking: An experimental demonstration of the beneficial effects of increased cognitively stimulating activity on fluid intelligence in healthy older adults. Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition, 0(0), 0–0. https://doi.org/10.1080/13825580701322163

Valenzuela, M. J., Sachdev, P., Wen, W., Chen, X., & Brodaty, H. (2008). Lifespan mental activity predicts diminished rate of hippocampal atrophy. PLOS ONE, 3(7), e2598. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0002598

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