The Healing Power of Tetris

Despite the wealth of data out there — and all the “brain-boosting” apps and products claiming they’ll keep your brain in fighting trim — the verdict is still out on whether puzzle-solving can prevent or positively impact Alzheimer’s, dementia, or other age-related mental issues.

But that doesn’t mean that puzzles and puzzle games can’t help in other ways.

Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden have been treating people suffering from traumatic flashbacks — a form of accident-induced post-traumatic stress disorder — by having them play Tetris.

 Originally, the researchers tested this concept by showing unpleasant videos to test subjects and having them play Tetris for twenty minutes afterward. Their research showed that people who played the game — versus a control group that wrote about how they spend their time — suffered from fewer unpleasant and intrusive flashbacks or memories over the following week.

Apparently, the act of playing the game interferes with how people form the visual component of flashbacks. The gameplay doesn’t interfere with actual formation of memories, simply whether the brain will recall those unpleasant memories.

As it turns out, this might be a quality unique to Tetris or Tetris-style games. The same research team discovered that playing a quiz-style game made the flashbacks worse for those subjects than for the subjects who played no game at all after a traumatic event.

It appears that not only did Alexey Pajitnov create one of the most popular games of all-time, but that his legacy may also include helping the victims of traumatic events with their healing process. Amazing stuff.


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PuzzleNation Looks Back at 2016!

The year is quickly coming to a close, and as I look back on an eventful year in the world of puzzles and games, I’m unbelievably proud of the contributions both PuzzleNation Blog and PuzzleNation made to the puzzle community as a whole.

Over the last year, we explored board games and card games, strategy games and trivia games, dice games and tile games, do-it-yourself puzzlers and pen-and-paper classics. We met designers, constructors, authors, artists who work in LEGOs and dominos, and creative types of all kinds.

We unraveled math puzzles and used statistics to play Hangman and Guess Who smarter. We accepted the challenge of diabolical puzzles, optical illusions, Internet memes, and more.

We delved into puzzle history with posts about Bletchley Park, puzzle graffiti from ancient Greece, Viking board games, and modern mysteries like the Kryptos Sculpture and the Voynich Manuscript. We separated fact from fiction when it comes to puzzles and brain health, avoiding highfalutin promises and sticking to solid science.

We spread the word about numerous worthwhile Kickstarters and Indiegogo campaigns, watching as the puzzle/game renaissance continued to amaze and surprise us with innovative new ways to play and solve. We shared amazing projects and worthy causes like Humble Bundles and puzzle/game donation programs for schools that allowed puzzle lovers to help others.

We celebrated International TableTop Day, built a puzzle fort in honor of International Puzzle Day, attended the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and the Connecticut Festival of Indie Games, and dove deep into puzzle events like the Indie 500, the UK Sudoku Championship, the 2016 UK Puzzle Championship, and Lollapuzzoola. We even celebrated a puzzly wedding proposal, and we were happy to share so many remarkable puzzly landmark moments with you.

It’s been both a pleasure and a privilege to explore the world of puzzles and games with you, my fellow puzzle lovers and PuzzleNationers. We marked four years of PuzzleNation Blog this year, I’m approaching my 650th blog post, and I’m more excited to write for you now than I was when I started.

And honestly, that’s just the blog. PuzzleNation’s good fortune, hard work, and accomplishments in 2016 went well beyond that.

In April, we launched Penny Dell Crosswords Jumbo 3 for iOS users, and in May, we followed that with Penny Dell Crosswords Jumbo for Android. In November, we launched our new Penny Dell Sudoku app on both Android and iOS.

But the standout showpiece of our puzzle app library remains the Penny Dell Crossword App. Every month, we release puzzle sets like our Dell Collection sets or the themed Deluxe sets for both Android and iOS users, and I’m proud to say that every single puzzle represents our high standards of quality puzzle content for solvers and PuzzleNationers.

We even revamped our ongoing Crossword Clue Challenge to feature a clue from each day’s Free Daily Puzzle in the Crossword app, all to ensure that more puzzle lovers than ever have access to the best mobile crossword app on the market today.

And your response has been fantastic! The blog is closing in on 2000 followers, and with our audience on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms continuing to grow, the enthusiasm of the PuzzleNation readership is both humbling and very encouraging.

2016 was our most ambitious, most exciting, and most creatively fulfilling year to date, and the coming year promises to be even brighter.

Thank you for your support, your interest, and your feedback, PuzzleNationers. Have a marvelous New Year. We’ll see you in 2017!


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It’s Follow-Up Friday: Bogus Brain Health edition!

Welcome to Follow-Up Friday!

By this time, you know the drill. Follow-Up Friday is a chance for us to revisit the subjects of previous posts and bring the PuzzleNation audience up to speed on all things puzzly.

And today, I’d like to return to the subject of brain health and puzzles.

The physicist Emerson Pugh once said that “if the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we would be so simple that we couldn’t.”

We’re still working hard to unravel the mysteries of how we learn, how we store information, and how puzzle-solving affects the brain in the short term and in the long term. There have been many MANY studies published touting all sorts of results, both positive and negative. And there have been numerous products of a puzzly nature that claim everything from improved memory to staving off Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other debilitating conditions.

As a puzzle guy, I wholeheartedly believe that puzzle-solving has its benefits, and I’m always on the lookout for any new data on the subject to share with you, my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers.

As far back as 2013, I was digging through every brain health article I could find, trying to find something substantial about the role of puzzles in brain health. I was hoping for a solid yea or nay, but the scientific community inevitably served up a resounding “maybe?”

Heck, as recently as this past September, I mentioned the conflicting data out there regarding brain health and puzzle-based programs like those on the Lumosity website.

And a recent article on Gizmodo may have put the final nail in the coffin when it comes to all of these lofty brain-health promises.

Citing a paper from Psychological Science in the Public Interest, the article discusses a recent attempt to comb through the numerous previous studies and test them under more rigorous scientific conditions.

The end result? From the Gizmodo article:

“Based on our extensive review of the literature cited by brain-training companies in support of their claims, coupled with our review of related brain-training literatures that are not currently associated with a company or product, there does not yet appear to be sufficient evidence to justify the claim that brain training is an effective tool for enhancing real-world cognition,” conclude the authors in the study.

Not surprisingly, brain-training can improve performance on the particular task or puzzle that’s being trained for. But there was very little evidence to show that these brain-games extend beyond that. These programs simply don’t improve everyday cognitive performance.

While I doubt this will be the last we’ve heard of puzzles as the be-all end-all cure for brain health, it’s good to know that dedicated minds are hard at work exposing the snake oil amidst the real science.


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These brain teasers are the cat’s meow.

[Image courtesy of Psychlinks.ca.]

It’s difficult to write about the potential health benefits of puzzles. Believe me, I’ve tried.

But many scientific articles, research studies, and other professional analyses disagree on the short-term or long-term benefits that puzzles have on the brain. There’s a wealth of material out there on brain health and the impact of puzzles, but much of it is inconclusive.

I’ve always tried to be careful to discuss any scientific articles on brain health for that reason, especially after Lumosity’s two-million-dollar payout earlier this year for falsely advertising that their puzzle games could “reduce or delay cognitive impairment associated with age and other serious health conditions,” as well as “stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease.”

That’s less of an issue, thankfully, when writing about other puzzle-solving creatures, though. In the past, we’ve seen crafty cockatoos, clever crows, outwitting octopuses, and deductive dogs. Apparently, we can also add cats to the list of fellow puzzlers!

[A mobile feeder toy. Image courtesy of Purina One.]

A recent article in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery reports that their findings indicate that a healthy dose of puzzle-solving at mealtime is beneficial to a kitty’s welfare.

According to the folks at Gizmodo, by utilizing food puzzles that require cats to roll a toy to release some food or manipulate a game board to reveal food, “these puzzles take advantage of the feline hunting instinct, fulfilling their ingrained desires. By ‘foraging’ for food in this way, cats are more physically active, they experience reduced levels of stress, and they become less demanding of their owners.”

Apparently, it’s all about engaging the cats, giving them something to work against in order to earn the food. The case studies cited by the report include behavioral issues and obesity that were overcome thanks to the use of food puzzles.

[A stationary puzzle feeder. Image courtesy of CatFoodDispensersReviews.com.]

I already knew that cats were skilled at treasure and scavenger hunts — based on the absolutely ludicrous places I would find the toys my sister’s cats left behind, often weeks after their visits — but I had no idea they belonged among the elite puzzle-solving animals we’ve previously chronicled here.

Makes sense, though. I solve puzzles for snacks sometimes. *shrugs* It’s a living.


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The Value of Recreational Math

There was a wonderful opinion piece in The New York Times a few weeks ago about the importance of recreational math.

Now, as author Manil Suri said, I’m sure that to some people, the idea of recreational math sounds like an oxymoron. But it’s everywhere! From poker players calculating their odds based on the cards dealt to the number crunching in role-playing games in order to complete certain tasks (or develop a character’s skills), math is built into many recreational activities.

It’s certainly a part of many kinds of puzzles, including brain teasers. Heck, previous brain teasers featured here in the blog like Mystery Number, the Birthday Puzzle, and the jugs of water trap from Die Hard with a Vengeance would all easily fall under the umbrella of recreational math.

The article goes on to mention the wonderful work of Martin Gardner, whose column “Mathematical Games” in Scientific American was a mainstay of recreational math and puzzly whimsy for over twenty-five years.

From Suri’s article:

In his final article for Scientific American, in 1998, Mr. Gardner lamented the “glacial” progress resulting from his efforts to have recreational math introduced into school curriculums “as a way to interest young students in the wonders of mathematics.”

Indeed, a paper this year in the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics points out that recreational math can be used to awaken mathematics-related “joy,” “satisfaction,” “excitement” and “curiosity” in students, which the educational policies of several countries (including China, India, Finland, Sweden, England, Singapore and Japan) call for in writing.

In contrast, the Common Core in the United States does not explicitly mention this emotional side of the subject, regarding mathematics only as a tool.

This is an excellent counterpoint to the regular argument that the primary value of puzzle-solving and other activities (like recreational math) is to stave off brain health issues later in life.

In a previous post, we discussed the inconsistent reports about the effects of puzzle-solving on the brain, leaving it unclear if regular doses of puzzles and recreational math are beneficial for other aspects of brain health over time, like memory retention, neuroplasticity, and concentration.

That may well be the case, but Suri’s point stands. The idea of instilling a sense of fun and wonder into the field of math, especially for younger minds? That’s one worth pursuing.

Show them that math can be about more than fulfilling homework or graphing parabola. Show them that mathematical concepts can help you crack a diabolical seesaw brain teaser, save a village with a grain of rice, or find an alternate solution to a PSAT question and prove the testers wrong.

It has been championed in the past by television shows like Square One TV and MythBusters, but sadly, examples like that are few and far between.

And if we can instill recreational math as a key facet of math itself, then we’d be one step closer to ensuring that STEM courses will have plenty of participants in the future.


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Crossing swords with crosswordese!

In the past, I’ve written about crosswordese, nemesis and irritant to many crossword solvers and constructors. For the uninitiated, crosswordese is shorthand for any and all obscure or curious words that you only encounter in crossword grids. From EPEE and OONA to Greek letters (ETA, RHO) and French rivers (AARE), these killer crossings are the bane of any solver’s existence.

And wouldn’t you know it, I encountered some crosswordese in a most unexpected place.

I was reading Patricia Marx’s book Let’s Be Less Stupid: An Attempt to Maintain My Mental Faculties, a humorous look at the common fear that our mental acuity declines as we get older. In the book, Marx references numerous ways she’s noted her brain working less efficiently than it used to, and she hilariously chronicles her attempts to combat this and keep her wits sharp.

As part of her ongoing efforts, she even created a crossword grid utilizing only tough crossword entries.

Her puzzle featured some truly great, funny clues, like “The side of the ship you want to be on if you don’t want your hair to get messed up” for ALEE and “No matter how bad your memory is, this is something to remember” for ALAMO.

While I wouldn’t count every entry in her grid as crosswordese, there were plenty of major offenders on her list. (You can check out the full puzzle in her book!)

And this gave me an idea. I would try my hand at creating my own 9×9 grid, composed entirely of crosswordese, utilizing some of the words from her list and some from lists submitted by fellow puzzlers.

[Forgive my nonstandard grid. I tried to go for the same homemade charm as Marx’s grid. Feel free to print out this post and try it out!]

ACROSS

1. Toward shelter, to salty types
3. Arrow poison OR how a child might describe their belly button in writing
5. Flightless bird OR Zeus’s mother
6. Hireling or slave
8. “Kentucky Jones” actor OR response akin to “Duh”
9. Compass dir. OR inhabitant’s suffix
12. Wide-shoe width OR sound of an excited squeal
15. No longer working, for short OR soak flax or hemp
16. Like a feeble old woman OR anagram of a UFO pilot
17. Actress Balin OR Pig ____ poke

DOWN

1. Mean alternate spelling for an eagle’s nest
2. Old-timey exclamation
3. Unnecessarily obscure French river or part of the Rhone-Alpes region
4. Supplement OR misspelling of a popular cat from a FOX Saturday morning cartoon
7. Maui goose
10. An abbreviated adjective covering school K through 12 OR how you might greet a Chicago railway
11. My least favorite example of crosswordese OR good and mad
12. Ornamental needlecase
13. Movie feline OR “Frozen” character
14. Shooting marble OR abbreviation for this missing phrase: “truth, justice, and ____”

Did you conquer this crosswordese-riddled grid? And what’s your least favorite example of crosswordese? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you!

Thanks for visiting PuzzleNation Blog today! You can share your pictures with us on Instagram, friend us on Facebook, check us out on TwitterPinterest, and Tumblr, and be sure to check out the growing library of PuzzleNation apps and games!