Solving puzzles can improve your brain health.  Here's how.

Solving puzzles can improve your brain health. Here’s how.

On November 5, 2020, I purchased The Raconteur Puzzle from the New York Public Library. It’s a 1,000 piece puzzle illustrated by Australian artist Ilya Milstein and it features a colorful scene of friends getting together, drinking wine and generally living their best lives. It was a scene I often found myself in with friends before the pandemic and that I wanted to recreate once it was safe.

Like many people, I entered the pandemic with high hopes and aspirations to find a hobby with my new free time. I still remember the first night my husband and I attempted to do the puzzle together – we had bought some wine, I had a Spotify jazz playlist for dinner playing in the background. Fast forward nearly two years later and this puzzle remains unfinished.

While most people find being peaceful confusing, my very ambitious (so, 1000 coins) and overachieving self found the experience stressful and overwhelming. I dreamed of completing the puzzle in a few days, maybe a week. But as the weeks stretched into months and it was time to tidy up our condo in Chicago to move to Ohio, my desire to become a headache person faded with him.

Recently, however, I decided to give the puzzle another try. This time, as part of a virtual puzzle and sip hosted by The Self Care Suite featuring RVL Wellness Co, a black woman-owned puzzle company. Finally, I had found my people.

As my husband mixed my cocktail (bee’s knees, thank you) and took our daughter for a walk so I could puzzle in peace, I enjoyed the conversation we had about our connection to puzzles. Many women mentioned that they started doing puzzles as a hobby by following in the footsteps of their grandmothers and aunts.

In fact, that’s how Brittny Horne, founder of RVL Wellness Co., got into puzzles.

“I started wondering when I was a kid with my grandmother. She was the one who introduced me to them and at some point it became this thing that I associated with her,” Horne shares, “She puzzles all day and has her own dedicated puzzle room. But as I got older, I didn’t really pay too much attention to the puzzles.”

And then the pandemic arrived. A puzzle maker saw sales increase 370% year-over-year in March 2020, a trend comparable to demand for puzzles during the Great Depression, according to puzzle historian Anne Williams.

“It’s something that you can control, when they felt like their life was totally out of control when it came to the economy,” Williams told CNBC in 2020. “It’s also a challenge on which you can take it.”

Except I haven’t prevailed yet – my perfectionism has prevented me from completing two puzzles so far (even though this one only had 120 pieces). Nonetheless, during that hour or so we all gathered on Zoom to diligently put together our puzzles and share our self-care stories, I noticed that I felt calmer and, for the first time in months, stress and anxiety around my ever-increasing mental state. to-do list seemed to dissipate as I focused on finding the next room.

Studies have shown that puzzles can help improve visuospatial reasoning, short-term memory, problem-solving skills as well as cognitive decline, which may reduce the risk of developing dementia. There are also mental health benefits to doing puzzles.

As trauma therapist Olivia James told Wired in 2021, “Focusing in a way that keeps your mind busy but not overly challenged is incredibly helpful for people with depression, anxiety, and stress. “because the activity offers “a bit of a vacation from yourself”.

“Puzzling is a mental workout that stimulates both sides of the brain — the left, or more logical side, and your right, or more creative side,” says Horne. “It also allows us to relax our mind and enter a meditative state. It can really help relieve some of your stress and give you a sense of peace and tranquility which lowers your blood pressure and heart rate.

The puzzle is also an inexpensive and very rewarding way to disconnect from devices and reconnect with yourself or loved ones if you wish.

“It helps slow everything down and allows you to open space in your mind to think about how you feel without all the distractions that come with social media and the world in general,” Horne continues. “On top of that, you release dopamine in your brain, which makes you feel pleasure and satisfaction, as well as motivation to keep going.”

While I felt more frustrated than motivated when it came to finishing the puzzle and sip, I’m determined to complete it – eventually. Or maybe my hunt for the perfect pandemic pastime will continue. Only time will tell.

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