S1E27. I’m Puzzled!

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!



  1. kzhop52 says:

    I love the NYT Spelling Bee. I think I’ve learned a lot about how words are constructed, and I love it when I hit the Genius level. The smaller the number of words that can be created from the letters, the easier the puzzle is for me. You would think it would be more difficult.

    So……the ladies on my court are learning Mah Jongg…..a game that I have never played before, and neither have most of my neighbors. I’ve run into a bit of a problem though…….I just don’t “get” the game. Now I’m a bit of a snoot, and I figured that my cognitive capabilities were at least equal to the neighbor gals, but now I wonder! They are just whizzing a long with learning how to play, and I feel like I’m on Mars. I’m almost always a “Genius” according to the NYT Spelling Bee, and so I expected that I would have no troubles learning a new game. LOL! I bought a book, I’ve had 3 “lessons”, I tried the online computer game, and nothing is working. I’m mortified that I’m the only one that cannot play the game, and so I think I’m going to have to back out of playing with the neighbors, and that would be a hit to socializing. And I’m worried about my brain. I’m pretty stressed out about it, and that isn’t good. I just don’t like to admit defeat in the face of a stupid game! I swear……learning Russian would have to be easier than Mah Jongg! Does the psychologist have any opinions on what is going on here? I’m supposed to take on new things to learn, but this new thing appears to be an impossible task! Maybe other things would be as well.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I just tried to read the rules for Mah Jong…and I didn’t even make it past the description of the pieces! I wouldn’t read too much into your less-than-desired learning curve. Maybe if you had a tutor who could answer your questions…

      Liked by 2 people

    2. fredstrath says:

      (just getting back from vacation so catching up with the blog)
      Wow. I also just read the rules and am flabbergasted by the complexity. As Wayne said, the pieces alone are enough to give one agita. I’m an engineer and find learning new languages fun, but it would take me a while to just feel a little comfortable playing Mahjong. I wouldn’t feel bad at all if I were you, but I think I’d stick with it a little longer and see if it starts to click. I see some YouTube videos that might help?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. kzhop52 says:

        Thanks to you and Wayne for trying to be encouraging and validating how difficult Mah Jongg is to learn. However, I’ve decided that life is too short at this point, and I think I will be returning to playing Bridge, which I am also not very good at, but at least I have some minimum understanding of how to play!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Carol Bojarsky says:

    So happy to find another Spelling Bee fan! When I’ve shared my enthusiasm with friends all I’ve gotten is blank looks. It’s fascinating to see how my brain works, some days getting to Genius in minutes, other days struggling and coming back to it all day, maddening to see the words I missed the next day. Is it off-days for my brain or just easier puzzles? And the Times crossword – I too remember struggling all week with friends on the Sunday crossword (back when you didn’t get the answers till the following week). Now I do it in an hour or less by myself. I refuse to believe that I’m any smarter that we were back then. Like the SAT, I fear the crossword has been dumbed down. But maybe that’s a good thing – I get a moment of victory each day when the computer congratulates me for finishing a puzzle or finding enough words

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thus proving, once again, that great minds do, indeed, gravitate! You are right about the Times puzzle editors dumbing down the daily crosswords. The days of 2-letter words with clues like “Samoan for milkweed” are long gone…and thankfully so.

      Liked by 1 person

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