One of the 5 pillars for maintaining a healthy brain is to engage in daily challenges to your automatic, hum-drum, run-of-the-mill thinking, i.e., to exercise your brain as well as your body.
For me, that includes researching & writing this blog and reading books. The experts in the field recommend big projects, too, like learning a new language or learning to play a musical instrument. They generally don’t recommend the commercially available cognitive training systems that claim to reverse or prevent cognitive decline. Those products appear to improve your skill at doing the computerized tasks without enhancing your performance in real-life situations.
One other recommendation, though, is to do various kinds of puzzles that force you to activate different brain regions and challenge your skills.
I’ve been doing the New York Times daily crossword puzzle for about ten years now, but my acquaintance with it goes back a long, long way.
My senior year in high school, John Lanterman would bring the puzzle into calculus class and four of us would sit in the back row and work on it while Mr. McGarry was solving equations at the blackboard. That was where I learned the word ‘ewer.’
When I tried to do it myself, though, I found it absolutely impossible. I gave up trying after a few futile attempts.
Six years later, out of college, I was living with my future wife and we would get the Times every Sunday and work on the puzzle together. It was a week-long project and we rarely completed it.
Now fast forward 40 years. I started doing the Times crossword puzzles online and found I could do them! I’m guessing it was the combination of their changing editors and my learning a lot of new words over the years.
The Monday puzzle is the easiest and they get progressively harder through Saturday. Thursday’s is the most fun because it breaks the rules and requires a novel approach to solving it (e.g., putting 2 letters in a square instead of 1, or using the black squares to represent letters). The Sunday puzzle is bigger and not as hard as Friday’s or Saturday’s, but it has a theme built into it to make it more interesting.
Occasionally, there are clues that stump me (like who played a certain character on ‘Game of Thrones’) and so I’ll Google the answer. It’s nice to have the option to cheat. 😀
In terms of brain health and cognitive decline, what I’ll be looking for is the time when I’m cheating a lot more or when I just can’t complete the Friday and Saturday puzzles.
There is another New York Times word puzzle I’ve taken up in the past year called ‘Spelling Bee.’ In this one, they give you 7 letters including 1 designated letter that you must use to make as many words as possible. They assign points for each word and then rank your score from ‘Beginner’ to ‘Genius.’ As of now, I’m able to hit the ‘Genius’ level every day, so I’ll be watching to see if my scores drop into the ‘Amazing’ or ‘Great’ range in the years ahead.
In the past 3 weeks, at the suggestion of Sally’s friend Val, I’ve taken up doing jigsaw puzzles online. Now this is really something out of my comfort zone. I was never any good at it, watching others assemble them with great dexterity, matching piece after piece, while I looked on unable to place a single one. My color perception isn’t that great and I don’t have an eye for detail. I have great difficulty visualizing spatial tasks and rotating objects in my mind. In other words, I have no business trying to do jigsaw puzzles!
As it turns out, though, this site provides a format that makes them do-able for me. For starters, you can select how many pieces in the puzzle, from 40 to 216. But best of all, the pieces are presented in their proper orientation, so it’s a lot easier than doing an actual cardboard jigsaw.
I love doing them! It takes me about 2 hours to do a 216-piece puzzle, and I’m elated when I am able to discriminate among subtle gradations of color and match 2 pieces. I’m learning new strategies and I enjoy the intensity of the effort required to succeed.
Best of all, it’s changed how I view the real world. I’m now much more aware of shadows and shades. I see a hundred different greens in the wooded area outside our window and I zoom in on the branches and not just the leaves. Wherever I look, I envision my view as a jigsaw and think about how best to crop it to make a better puzzle.
Over time, I’ll be watching to see if it starts taking me longer, of if I get frustrated and just can’t complete a 216-piece puzzle. In the meantime, though, I’m just enjoying my new-found skills and hobby!
All together, I would say I spend about 3 hours each day puzzling. Time will tell if that’s a good thing or not!