Puzzles and Brain Health: Finally Some Definitive Data?

For years now, brain health and puzzle-solving have been intertwined topics.

There have been many, MANY published studies touting all sorts of effects, both positive and negative, of solving puzzles. Alongside those studies, there have been numerous products of a puzzly nature that claim to do everything from improving memory to staving off Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other debilitating conditions.

I’ve been reading articles on the subject for more than six years now, and the results, for the most part, have been inconclusive. This is often due to small sample sizes for the experimental data, or evidence that leads to likelihoods rather than verifiable, repeatable, reliable data.

Across all of these articles, there are essentially three suppositions:

  • A. Solving puzzles helps maintain or improve brain function
  • B. Specific “brain-training” exercises, programs, or products help maintain or improve brain function more so than traditional/unfocused puzzle solving
  • C. Solving puzzles (whether traditional or “brain-training”) helps stave off conditions like dementia, Alzheimer’s, and memory loss later in life

When it comes to Supposition B, I’ve yet to see anything that proves a “brain-training” or “brain-boosting” puzzle regimen actually helps in a meaningful way. In fact, at one point, one of these “brain-training” companies had to pay a two-million-dollar fine for making promises that their program couldn’t verifiably deliver on.

[Image courtesy of SharpBrains.com.]

But let’s leave that nonsense aside for a moment and focus on Supposition A, the idea that solving puzzles is good for the brain.

For the first time, we have a study performed by a reputable organization with a sample size large enough that it may finally allow us to draw some decent conclusions. Two articles published this month in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry have concluded that adults age 50 and older who regularly solve puzzles like crosswords and Sudoku have better brain function than those who do not.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Exeter, involved a test group of more than 19,000 participants.

From an article on Science Daily discussing the study:

Researchers asked participants in the PROTECT study . . . to report how frequently they engage in word and number puzzles and undertake a series of cognitive tests sensitive to measuring changes in brain function. They found that the more regularly participants engaged with the puzzles, the better they performed on tasks assessing attention, reasoning and memory.

From their results, researchers calculate that people who engage in word puzzles have brain function equivalent to ten years younger than their age, on tests assessing grammatical reasoning, and eight years younger than their age on tests measuring short term memory.

Yes, this is only one study, and yes, obviously more testing and sampling is needed to apply this to the millions upon millions of folks age 50 and older who might benefit from this. But it’s worth giving this topic deep consideration. A sample size of 19,000 is impressive, and there’s no profit or “brain-training” scam behind the study.

And, regarding Supposition C, while this study didn’t offer anything definitive, it remains a possibility. Dr. Anne Corbett of the University of Exeter Medical School said, “We can’t say that playing these puzzles necessarily reduces the risk of dementia in later life but this research supports previous findings that indicate regular use of word and number puzzles helps keep our brains working better for longer.”

How much longer, who can say? But, when it comes to better brain health, it seems we can finally say that puzzles are good for you. (I always suspected.)


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A Coin Puzzle: My Two Cents (Plus 97 More)

Our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles recently shared the following brain teaser on their social media:

Naturally, we accepted the challenge.

Now, before we get started with this one, we have to add one detail: which coins we’re allowed to use. It’s safe to assume that pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters are available, but the question doesn’t say anything about half-dollar coins.

So we’re going to figure out the correct answer without half-dollar coins available, and then with half-dollar coins available.

Let’s begin.


[Image courtesy of How Stuff Works.]

The easiest way to get started is to figure out the smallest number of coins we need to make 99 cents, since that’s the highest number we need to be able to form. Once we have that info, we can work backwards and make sure all the other numbers are covered.

For 99 cents, you need 3 quarters, 2 dimes, and 4 pennies. That’s 25 + 25 + 25 + 10 + 10 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 99.

Right away, we know we’re close with these 9 coins.

You don’t need more than 3 quarters, for instance, because your possible totals are all below $1.

Now, let’s make sure we can form the numbers 1 through 24 with our chosen coins. (If we can, we’re done, because once we’ve covered 1 through 24, we can simply add one quarter or two quarters to cover 25 through 99.)

Our four pennies cover us for 1 through 4. But wait, there’s 5. And we can’t make 5 cents change with 4 pennies or 2 dimes. In fact, we can’t make 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 cents change without a nickel.

So let’s add a nickel to our current coin count. That makes 3 quarters, 2 dimes, 1 nickel, and 4 pennies. (Why just 1 nickel? Well, we don’t need two, because that’s covered by a single dime.)

Our four pennies cover 1 through 4. Our nickel and four pennies cover 5 through 9. Our dime, nickel, and four pennies cover 1 through 19. And our two dimes, one nickel, and four pennies cover 1 through 29. (But, again, we only need them to cover 1 through 24, because at that point, our quarters become useful.)

That’s all 99 possibilities — 1 through 99 — covered by just ten coins.

[Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

But what about that half-dollar?

Well, we can apply the same thinking to a coin count with a half-dollar. For 99 cents, you need 1 half-dollar, 1 quarter, 2 dimes, and 4 pennies. That’s 50 + 25 + 10 + 10 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 99.

Now, we make sure we can form the numbers 1 through 49 with our chosen coins. (Once we can, we can simply add the half-dollar to cover 50 through 99.)

Once again, we quickly discover we need that single nickel to fill in the gaps.

Our four pennies cover 1 through 4. Our nickel and four pennies cover 5 through 9. Our dime, nickel, and four pennies cover 1 through 19. Our two dimes, one nickel, and four pennies cover 1 through 29. And our one quarter, two dimes, one nickel, and four pennies cover 1 through 54. (But, again, we only need them to cover 1 through 49, because at that point, our half-dollar becomes useful.)

That’s all 99 possibilities — 1 through 99 — covered by just nine coins.


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A Puzzle That’s Always at Your Fingertips (Literally)!

[Image courtesy of Puzzle Ring.com.]

Puzzles come in all shapes and sizes. There are wooden boxes, plastic mazes, and metallic brain teasers. Shapes to be reassembled and combinations of wood, rope, and metal to untangle. There are wine bottles to free, locks to open, and secret compartments to uncover.

There are even puzzles you can wear.

Say hello to the puzzle ring.

[Image courtesy of UCT UK.]

These rings are made of overlapping metal bands that weave together to create elaborate designs, knots, and patterns. Puzzle rings can consist of as few as three bands or as many as seventeen, though between four and eight are the most common. When properly arranged, the bands align to form a particular design, and the pressure of your finger helps hold the bands in place.

When you take it off, the ring falls apart into its component bands. (Often, the rings are interconnected, which ensures they won’t be misplaced, but can also make solving them harder.)

And, as you might expect, the more bands that constitute the ring, the more difficult and elaborate the movements necessary to arrange the ring into its correct configuration.

[Image courtesy of Pinterest.]

Rings with Celtic knot or claddagh designs — inspired by Irish tradition — symbolize the thought and effort that keep the bonds of friendships or marriages strong. Faithfulness and loyalty, a bond forged by separate elements coming together as one.

Now, that’s a lovely thought, but some origin stories paint the puzzle ring as a symbol of mistrust. You see, according to legend, a Turkish king (or a soldier in the Middle East heading off to war, depending on the story), didn’t trust his beloved, so he had a puzzle ring forged for her. This way, if she was unfaithful — for instance, removing the ring so her new lover wouldn’t know she was married — the ring would fall apart, providing sure evidence that the ring had been removed and some sort of shenaniganry was afoot.

Those stories may very well have some fact behind them, but it’s more likely that puzzle rings evolved from the Elizabethan tradition of gimmal rings (or gimmel rings).

[Image courtesy of Pinterest.]

Gimmal rings are rings consisting of two or three hoops or pieces that form a single ring. Popular as engagement gifts, the rings would be worn separately until the wedding, when they would be reunited and used as the wedding ring. (The third piece was often worn by a witness to the wedding before it would be reunited with the others.)

Also known as joint rings, gimmal rings found enthusiastic audiences in Germany, England, and elsewhere in Europe, which is also where claddagh designs, dragon designs, and other imagery was added.

Some sites online claim that military veterans in Sweden sometimes receive puzzle rings representing the number of tours they’ve served (four bands representing one tour, five bands representing two tours, etc.), but I’ve been unable to independently verify that.

[Image courtesy of Puzzle Ring.com.]

But no matter the origins or the common uses, there’s no denying that puzzle rings are some of the most beautiful, elegant, and clever puzzles on the market today. (We’ve even added a board full of them to our Pinterest account!)

A cursory Google search turns up dozens of sites selling them, and the prices range from quite reasonable to thousands upon thousands of dollars for diamond-inlaid, golden puzzle rings sure to dazzle the eye and baffle the mind.

I think that, for now, I’ll stick with the 3D-printed puzzle ring I got for Christmas a few years ago.


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To Solve This Murder Mystery, You Need to Break the Game

[Image courtesy of Game Informer.]

Our readership isn’t a predominantly video game-savvy audience. We have lots of app users and lots of pencil-and-paper solvers in the PuzzleNation membership, but fewer gamers.

So you may wonder why I periodically write about video games when it’s a niche interest for the majority of our readers. That’s an entirely fair question.

As a puzzle enthusiast, I’m constantly seeking out new ways to build puzzles and solve them. Brain teasers, word problems, riddles, and mechanical puzzles all fit under the umbrella of “puzzles,” but they’re all very different solving experiences. Similarly, there’s a huge difference between a pencil-and-paper puzzle and an escape room, a murder mystery and a scavenger hunt, an encrypted message and a puzzle box.

But they’re all puzzles. And that’s what I find so fascinating. There are endless ways to challenge ourselves in puzzly fashion, and video games are constantly innovating when it comes to puzzle-solving.

[Image courtesy of Zelda Dungeons.]

Whether we’re talking about navigating past guards with well-placed arrow shots in the Thief games, navigating the labyrinth of the Water Temple in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, or maneuvering around a room in mind-bending ways with your portal gun in Portal, video games can take 2D puzzle ideas and bring them into the third dimension in amazing ways.

A friend recently told me about a game called Iris Fall, where you actually manipulate light and shadows in order to solve puzzles. That’s not just ingenious, it’s beautiful as well.

There are even games that let you change the rules of the puzzle itself in order to solve it.

[Image courtesy of Born Frustrated Studio.]

And another game in that vein recently came to market, a detective game called File://maniac.

In this murder mystery, you’re tasked with tracking down a devious murderer who happily taunts you with messages as you pursue them. But instead of pursuing leads and accomplishing tasks in more traditional detective-game format, you actually have to manipulate the files of the game itself as you play.

Yes, the very coding and organization of the game is the basis of the puzzles and codes for you to unravel.

Heather Alexandra at Kotaku explains more:

Getting rid of a locked door might require placing the door’s files in your recycling bin. Finding the password to a lock means opening up a handful of notebook files and searching until you find the code. It’s a different sort of puzzle solving, one that encourages the player to be aware of the game world’s artificiality… playing around with the actual game files creates a fun mixture of puzzling and “exploration” as you poke around folders and directories.

[Image courtesy of Go Go Free Games.]

It’s a brilliantly meta concept. Whereas many games and puzzle experiences are all about immersion, ensuring you forget you’re playing a game and encouraging you to dive into the narrative and gameplay itself, File://maniac demands that you not only remember you’re playing a game, but forces you to think like the designers of the game to circumvent each challenge.

It’s like being trapped in a maze, then being able to shift your perspective to an overhead view of the maze and navigate yourself out with omniscient ease. It’s a total perspective shift, and the a-ha moment of figuring out how to change the rules to your advantage is an immensely satisfying reward.

Do you know of any games out there that create unique and unexpected puzzly experiences? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you!


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A World of Puzzles and Games at Norwescon 42!

Your friendly neighborhood puzzle blogger took a trip across the country to attend Norwescon, the premiere fantasy and science fiction convention in the Pacific Northwest.

This was the 42nd edition of the convention, and if you know your sci-fi novels, then you’re not surprised that there were all sorts of references to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (The number 42 is a big part of the first novel.)

The convention’s subtitle was “Don’t Panic” (another HHGTTG reference), and lots of convention attendees were in their bathrobes or carrying towels, representing the two main characters of the series, the bathrobe-wearing Arthur Dent and the towel-toting alien tourist Ford Prefect.

As with any convention, the costuming was amazing. There were fairy godmothers, vikings, mermaids, Daleks, folks in Seahawks-colored finery (it was Seattle, after all), a Predator offering free hugs, an inflatable T-rex costume with those robotic grabber arms, and even photo ops with Krampus and Santa! (And Easter Krampus on Sunday.)

One of the oddest moments for me was seeing a group of people in uniforms I didn’t recognize, and realizing they weren’t con attendees, they were the flight crew for an international airline. (The hotel was across the street from the airport.)

Although many of the convention’s panels and events have a writerly focus, plenty of attention is also given to art, films, games, and pop culture, so there was loads for puzzle and game fans to enjoy at the event.

The dealers room — the main area to shop for costumes, books, fabric, t-shirts, memorabilia, collectibles, and more — had several game shops represented, toting loads of games at good prices. (Several of which we’ve reviewed on the Blog in the past, and some that will be reviewed in the future.)

[All hotel nooks and crannies were stuffed with thematic exhibits, including this delightful leave-a-book, take-a-book mini-library a la The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.]

Board game demos were available all day, complete with skillful players to introduce newbies to various games, as well as tabletop roleplaying adventures in all sorts of settings and systems, from Dungeons & Dragons and Vampire: The Masquerade to Pathfinder and more. In fact, one of the gaming spaces was right down the hall from my hotel room, and it was PACKED morning ’til night with enthusiastic roleplayers telling stories, rolling dice, and battling monsters.

There were open games as well as sign-ups for specific games and adventures, including a multi-table multi-hour battle for gang supremacy in the fictional city of Waterdeep.

One of the most intriguing puzzle/game experiences available to try at the convention was Artemis.

Artemis is a spaceship bridge simulator that allows a group of players to essentially play out a Star Trek-esque adventure. Each player has instructions, controls, and a laptop in front of them, as well as a big screen for everyone to view (much like the main viewer on the bridge of the Enterprise).

Two teams, each piloting their own ship (the Artemis or the Intrepid) must battle foes, trade goods, dock with space stations, and explore the galaxy, all while maintaining their weapons, shields, energy usage in the ship, and piloting control, as well as communicating with their sister ship through headset.

I moved back and forth between the two “ships,” watching as the players navigated different challenges, cooperated (and disagreed) on command decisions, managed their resources, and ventured between the stars, all while some pretty impressive graphics tied the whole play experience together.

What really struck me about the Artemis style of play was how much communication was required for success. It is a co-op game in the same vein as Castle Panic!, Forbidden Island, or Spaceteam, but with a lot more personal responsibility. Plus the laptop interfaces for each station were slick and well-designed, bringing that polished Star Trek: The Next Generation feel home.

I was also responsible for some of the puzzliest events at the convention. Although I did participate in some panels on writing, literature, roleplaying games, and movies (both good ones and the worst of b-movies), the two events that were the main focus of my time were a LARP/scavenger hunt based on The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and an escape room based on Star Wars.

The HHGTTG event was built as an in-universe scavenger hunt where players (who were all expected to bring their towels, of course), had to complete five tasks. The completion of each task led to a rune for the players to record on their gamesheet. and earn five runes, then spell them out in a secret location using their towels, in order to ask an important question.

Some of the tasks included:

  • finding HHGTTG character names in a word search grid, then reading the remaining uncircled letters as a secret message
  • singing karaoke to the mermaids at the hotel pool
  • assisting a Vogon poet with her terrible poetry

They had to earn all five runes, then find me in a secret location and spell out the runes with their towels. If they did so correctly, they would bring one of the missing dolphins back to Earth (and received a small stuffed one for their efforts).

[A bag full of dolphins, awaiting a possible return to Earth.]

The Star Wars event was a traditional escape room with puzzles to solve, boxes to unlock, combinations to find, keys to uncover, and a room to escape under a time limit. Designed for the teenaged attendees, the escape room was set on a bounty hunter’s ship, and all of the players were recently captured by the bounty hunter, awaiting transport to an Imperial prison.

But the bounty hunter has fallen victim to one of his own security protocols, so all of the “prisoners” have a chance to escape, if they disable the (Nerf gun-)armed droid blocking the escape pod, as well as either shut off the radiation leak near the pod OR gather enough bacta to heal themselves from radiation damage in order to actually survive the escape.

[Nerf guns and five shipped boxes. An embryonic escape room.]

[The contents of said shipped boxes. An escape room mid-construction.]

Although some of the boxes were opened out of order (by brute force, rather than proper solving) and one of the puzzles had an unfortunate printing error, the players unraveled the mysteries of the bounty hunter’s ship and escaped with only seconds to spare before the Imperials arrived. SUCCESS!

(Plus friend of the blog Jen Cunningham cooked up some lovely victory certificates for the players, which was a cool bonus. Thank you Jen!)

More importantly, despite the hiccups encountered during both events, everyone had fun while playing (either walking away with a small dolphin or a certificate).

The entire convention was a blast (an exhausting one, but a blast nonetheless), and I highly recommend attending Norwescon next year to any fans of horror, sci-fi, fantasy, writing workshops, games, roleplaying, and of course, puzzles.


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Brain Teaser Week: Answers Edition!

Did you enjoy Brain Teaser Week, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers? We certainly hope so! It was a fun experiment in dedicating an entire week to a particular type of puzzle.

We gave you three puzzles to challenge your deductive, mathematical, and puzzly skills, and now it’s time to break them down and explain them.


Tuesday’s Puzzle:

A set of football games is to be organized in a “round-robin” fashion, i.e., every participating team plays a match against every other team once and only once.

If 105 matches in total are played, how many teams participated?

If every team plays every other team once, you can easily begin charting the matches and keeping count. With 2 teams (Team A and Team B), there’s 1 match: AB. With 3 teams (A, B, and C), there are 3 matches: AB, AC, BC. With 4 teams (A, B, C, and D), there are 6 matches: AB, AC, AD, BC, BD, CD. With 5 teams (A, B, C, D, and E), there are 10 matches: AB, AC, AD, AE, BC, BD, BE, CD, CE, DE.

Now, we could continue onward, writing out all the matches until we reach 105, but if you notice, a pattern is forming. With every team added, the number of potential matches increases by one.

With one team, 0 matches. With two teams, 1 match. With three teams, 2 more matches (making 3). With four teams, 3 more matches (making 6). With five teams, 4 more matches (making 10).

So, following that pattern, 6 teams gives us 15, 7 teams gives us 21, and so on. A little simple addition tells us that 15 teams equals 105 matches.


Thursday’s Puzzle:

You want to send a valuable object to a friend securely. You have a box which can be fitted with multiple locks, and you have several locks and their corresponding keys. However, your friend does not have any keys to your locks, and if you send a key in an unlocked box, the key could be copied en route.

How can you and your friend send the object securely?

(Here’s the simplest answer we could come up with. You may very well have come up with alternatives.)

The trick is to remember that you’re not the only one who can put locks on this box.

Put the valuable object into the box, secure it with one of your locks, and send the box to your friend.

Next, have your friend attach one of his own locks and return it. When you receive it again, remove your lock and send it back. Now your friend can unlock his own lock and retrieve the object.

Voila!


Friday’s Puzzle:

The owner of a winery recently passed away. In his will, he left 21 barrels to his three sons. Seven of them are filled with wine, seven are half full, and seven are empty.

However, the wine and barrels must be split so that each son has the same number of full barrels, the same number of half-full barrels, and the same number of empty barrels.

Note that there are no measuring devices handy. How can the barrels and wine be evenly divided?

For starters, you know your end goal here: You need each set of barrels to be evenly divisible by 3 for everything to work out. And you have 21 barrels, which is divisible by 3. So you just need to move the wine around so make a pattern where each grouping (full, half-full, and empty) is also divisible by 3.

Here’s what you start with:

  • 7 full barrels
  • 7 half-full barrels
  • 7 empty barrels

Pour one of the half-full barrels into another half-full barrel. That gives you:

  • 8 full barrels
  • 5 half-full barrels
  • 8 empty barrels

If you notice, the full and empty barrels increase by one as the half-full barrels decrease by two. (Naturally, the total number of barrels doesn’t change.)

So let’s do it again. Pour one of the half-full barrels into another half-full barrel. That gives you:

  • 9 full barrels
  • 3 half-full barrels
  • 9 empty barrels

And each of those numbers is divisible by 3! Now, each son gets three full barrels, one half-full barrel, and three empty barrels.


How did you do, fellow puzzlers? Did you enjoy Brain Teaser Week? If you did, let us know and we’ll try again with another puzzle genre!

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