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Engage your brain on National Puzzle Day

ASU psychology professor explains why and how our brains use puzzle solving

January 25, 2018

Prepare to exercise your brain: National Puzzle Day is Jan. 29.

No stranger to puzzles is Professor Michael McBeath, who runs the Perception, Ecological Actions and Learning Lab in the Department of Psychology at Arizona State University. The lab studies how we perceive three-dimensional space and motion perception.

Since McBeath’s study of perception translates into an office full of illusion-filled games and puzzles, ASU Now asked him a few questions about why humans love puzzles so much.

Question: Puzzles, riddles and games that test our ingenuity or knowledge have been recorded in ancient cultures. So do humans enjoy working through a puzzle?

Answer: Puzzles are typically play-problems that have elements of more serious real-world issues. They help people develop skill sets and strategic thinking experience that are also potentially useful in other impactful domains. Classic psychology studies have examined conditions that specify motivation based on levels of timing of rewards and punishments.

Enjoyable puzzles fall into a medium range of solvability, which provide participants with an intermediate level of variable rewards. Successful puzzle mastery may also imbue status and personal satisfaction. Finally, while most puzzles are or can be done by single users, some like escape rooms are partly fun because of the competitive and cooperative social interactions.

Q: What happens in our brain as we solve a puzzle?

A: It depends on the type of puzzle. Different puzzles or games tap into different cognitive processes. For example, jigsaw puzzles, or Tetris, rely heavily on vision and spatial abilities while crossword puzzles and Words With Friends are heavily dependent on language abilities. Other examples, like rock climbing, could be considered a puzzle that involves trying to predict and physically navigate. Virtually all puzzles and games have some sort of strategy or working memory component, so our higher-order “executive functions” are all heavily involved. 

Q: How have puzzles changed over time?

A: Puzzles typically reflect the ongoing cultural norms, so replacement activities continually evolve. For example, crossword puzzles did not become popular until the latter part of the 19th and early 20th century, when a substantial portion of the population was able to read and media like newspapers became widely available. Rubik’s Cubes followed the commercialization of plastics and similarly, technological advances and the widespread availability of personal computers and smartphones have promoted video-based puzzles like Tetris and games like Candy Crush.

Q: Do different parts of the brain help you solve different types of puzzles?

A: Higher-order visuospatial processing is more in the right hemisphere, while the left hemisphere is responsible for language processing. Math skills are dependent on the left hemisphere as well. The frontal lobe is responsible for executive functions, including organization, strategy and working memory.

McBeath shows how to solve a puzzle in his office. Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Q: Does puzzle solving enhance cognition? If so, how?

A: This is the question many people would love to have an answer to! Surely people benefit from keeping their brain as active as possible, and certainly some puzzles teach useful, generalizable knowledge. One benefit of games and puzzles is that they are fun! Things that are fun and engaging help people to stay involved with them; whether they can stave off diseases like Alzheimer’s is still being investigated, but so far, no clear-cut cures due to brain-training exercises have been experimentally verified.

Q: What is your favorite puzzle to solve?

A: I enjoy many games and puzzles. One of my favorites is Sudoku, probably in part because I like thinking about the different types of mathematical logical reasoning that can come into play. I also like that I can start, stop and finish the puzzle at a later time. Additionally, I enjoy crossword puzzles, Boggle and other word games. … If I am not careful, such activities can be rather addictive and time-consuming, so I typically limit my playing them to special times — like when I fly. 

About the puzzles in the video at the top of this story
  • Jigsaw puzzle: Created by cartographer John Spilsbury to use as a teaching aid in geography.
  • Crossword puzzle: Arthur Wynne, a journalist, was asked to create a new “mental exercise” for the fun section of the New York World in 1913.
  • Rubik’s Cube: Invented in the mid-1970s by Enro Rubik, a Hungarian professor who wanted to help his students understand three-dimensional problems.
  • Tangram puzzle: Uses shapes that can be used to create different patterns. They were first documented in writing in China in the early 1800s, though they're considered to be much older than that. 

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