Let's Get Jiggy With It!

By Shasta Webb

The clock hands inched ever closer to 2 a.m., yet we still sat there, our eyes straining to find the correct pieces to finish the 1,500 piece jigsaw puzzle. We had only started it the evening before, and the progress we made was remarkable. We wouldn’t give up, no matter how tired we became, or how hungry or how frustrated. No, Richelle Johnson ’13, Mac McCreary ’12, and I sat at that table in Dupre 5 forcing ourselves to solve the puzzle. I have to wonder if this kind of behavior is normal. I asked myself while I sat at the tableside, searching relentlessly for the correctly shaped piece, is there any benefit to completing puzzles like this? Or, for that matter, completing puzzles at all? Why would anyone want to put his or herself through essentially agony, just to solve, for all intents and purposes, a meaningless game?

As it turns out, puzzles are much more than simple games. Even the easiest of puzzles, like the kind given to toddlers, are highly beneficial to brain development. Research shows that children who are given puzzles at young ages develop the necessary skills to help them learn to read and write. Puzzles also train the brain in hand-eye coordination as well as fine motor skills.

But what about adults? By our age the brain is generally highly developed in the skills that puzzles can offer, so is there any benefit to doing puzzles in adulthood?

To my surprise, there are plenty of sources explaining that puzzles, and particularly jigsaw puzzles, are highly beneficial. On one online self-improvement encyclopedia, homeopath Trish Barker, citing a MacArthur study, explained that “keeping the mind active with jigsaw puzzles and other mind-flexing activities can actually lead to a longer life expectancy, a better quality of life, and reduce.chances of developing certain types of mental illness, including memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s Disease.”

The claims seemed plausible, but I had to research further. In fact, according to a publication from the Harvard Medical School, jigsaw puzzles actually do exercise the brain, even in old age, and a more active mind is stronger in the face of diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s. While the Harvard study did not claim that puzzles outright prevent brain diseases, it did touch upon the fact that jigsaw puzzles can create positive social environments, and according to the MacArthur study, a supportive group can also help prevent memory loss as well as increase lifespan.
More studies showed that puzzles force us to use both sides of our brains. When doing a jigsaw puzzle, people use the left, logical side to fit the pieces together, and use the right, creative side to see the completed picture.

Other sites discussed that for any age group, jigsaw puzzles can be highly beneficial in creating positive social situations. This I didn’t have to double-check. In the two nights that I worked on the 1500 piece monstrosity, I met people I had never known, and grew closer to acquaintances. There was something very unifying about working with people at the same problem. We all had a common goal, and instead of creating competition between one another, we worked together.

Barker also claimed that the challenge jigsaw puzzles present could help to reduce stress and create meditative situations for puzzle-solvers. She presented the idea that life can sometimes seem scattered and out of control, like a fragmented puzzle. While in a concentrated state, putting together a puzzle can evoke calming emotions that might transfer into the more stressful aspects of every day life. Of course, this theory is difficult to prove scientifically, but it’s not entirely impossible.

Perhaps completing a jigsaw puzzle is just what Mac students need to make friends, decrease stress and activate their minds.