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 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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TableTop Day 2019: PuzzleNation Style!

tabletopday_logo

International TableTop Day is one of our favorite days of the year around here! Whether you play board games, role-playing games, card games, dice games, puzzles, or logic games, this is the holiday for you, family, and friends to come together and play games.

As we discussed in a previous post, there has been some controversy surrounding the date of TableTop Day this year, so we decided to celebrate our own in-house TableTop Day last Tuesday!

For the seventh year in a row, we put aside some time to indulge in some puzzles and games with our friends at Penny Dell Puzzles, and as always, it was a delight. Games were played, snacks were consumed, and fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers were introduced to some terrific games.

For our TableTop Day event, we focus on quick-play games and games for 2 to 4 players, since that allows people the opportunity to try several games without taking too big a bite out of the workday. Not only that, but with smaller groups or 1-on-1 games, it’s easier to introduce someone to a game and really get into the mechanics and gameplay swiftly.

[The spread of games available for the event. Can you name them all?]

As usual, the event started with people picking out their favorites and introducing new players to the game. Quarto was immediately snatched up, and I played several rounds of Tak with a newcomer to the game who really enjoyed the board game’s strategy, simplicity, and elegant design.

At another table, several rounds of the quick-play pattern-matching card game Loonacy marked a fast-paced and chaotic start to the day’s festivities for new players and familiar faces alike.

A few games of the British History edition of Timeline soon followed, as well as new players trying out the labyrinth-building challenge of The Abandons, which quickly proved both difficult and addictive for one particular celebrant. One-player puzzles like Puzzometry and Knot Dice were also popular.

We concluded our celebration of gaming and community in suitably epic fashion with a round of Exploding Kittens. The players bravely tried to avert and avoid the catastrophes induced by various adorable, oblivious, combustible cats, and it made for a fun, silly ending to another terrific event.

People got to blow off some steam, try some new games, and enjoy some snacks. What more can you ask for? All in all, we definitely call that a success!

[Naturally, people waited with baited breath to see who won our raffle AND this terrific bundle of games and goodies!]

So, fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, do you celebrate International Tabletop Day? Let us know in the comment section! We’d love to hear from you!


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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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View a Clue: Crosswordese Answers!

Last week, we brought back one of our trickiest recurring features, the View a Clue game!

If you recall, we selected ten words that commonly show up in crossword grids — frequently and infamously enough that they’ve becomes crosswordese at this point —  to see if the PuzzleNation audience could identify them from pictures.

Without further ado, let’s get to it!


#1 (3 letters)

Answer: SST, aka supersonic transport

#2 (5 letters)

Answer: AERIE, a high nest for a bird of prey

#3 (3 letters)

Answer: TAW, a large marble used as a shooter

#4 (4 letters)

Answer: SERF, a medieval laborer bound to serving a feudal lord

#5 (5 letters)

Answer: AIOLI, mayonnaise flavored with garlic

#6 (4 letters)

Answer: YEGG, a safecracker

#7 (5 letters)

Answer: SABOT, a wooden shoe worn in European countries

#8 (4 letters)

Answer: OGEE, a pointed arch or molding in an S-shape

#9 (4 letters)

Answer: APSE, a semicircular vaulted area of a church

#10 (3 letters)

Answer: ELL, a building extension added at a right angle to the main building


How did you do? Let us know in the comments below!

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The Indie 500 Crossword Tournament returns soon!

Four years ago, a new crossword tournament joined the ranks of the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and Lollapuzzoola, immediately carving out its own niche in the puzzle world. The Indie 500 offered topnotch puzzles and a pie-fueled solving experience both live in Washington, D.C., and for solvers at home.

And it’s back! The fifth edition of The Indie 500 is happening on Saturday, June 1, and this year, the theme is “Going Around in Squares.”

This year’s tournament follows the same format as previous years: five preliminary puzzles of varying difficulty, plus a final puzzle for the top three scorers in both divisions.

[There’s also a fair amount of slapstick.]

Registration is open for the tournament! They’re at capacity for attending in person (there is a waiting list in case anyone drops out!), but worry not, because solving from home is only $10!

Not only that, but there’s a travel-themed meta suite that lets you name your own price, as well as access to the previous tournament bundles for $5 apiece. Those are super-affordable prices for some outstanding puzzles!

Andy Kravis, Erik Agard, and Neville Fogarty all make their fifth appearance as veteran constructors — understandable, since they’re also event organizers — and they’re joined once again by Angela Olson Halsted and Peter Broda, as well as tournament constructors Jenna LaFleur, Bryan Betancur, Janie Smulyan, Rebecca Falcon, and Yacob Yonas!

And, of course, there will be pie.

You can click here for the Indie 500 home page, and click here for a rundown of last year’s puzzles!

Will you be competing, or participating from home? Let us know in the comments below!


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