Top 10 Benefits of Puzzle Solving for Adults

“Puzzles give psychological order to the chaos we feel. When you come out of it, when you’ve solved the puzzle, then life seems to work better.”
- Marcel Danesi, Professor of Semiotics and Linguistic Anthropology, University of Toronto

We've all experienced that gratifying "aha!" moment after piecing together an epic Scrabble word, poring over a crossword clue, or filling in the last square of a Sudoku puzzle.

For ages, puzzles have been a way for us to reset from the world outside. From word games and brain games, to math puzzles and jigsaws, puzzles are brain tools that satisfy our nimble minds and bolster our thinking skills.

Here, let’s walk through the top ten benefits of puzzle solving for adults.

1. Enhanced Mood

The relationship between puzzle solving and mental health has been studied for years. Fact of the matter is, the act of solving a puzzle and continuing to commit yourself to the task on a regular basis strengthens our mood states.

A team of researchers used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to look at what happens in the brain when people tackle word puzzles that require creative thinking and problem solving. The study found that creative puzzle-solving increases dopamine, the neurotransmitter that regulates mood and pleasure.

Puzzle solving also provides a small sense of accomplishment and achievement. In positive psychology, achievement is one of the key ingredients in the theory of well-being . It entails striving toward something simply for the sake of the pursuit and personal improvement.

In some small yet impactful way, solving a puzzle creates a sense of pride, perseverance, and attainment of an intrinsic goal. Having a sincere internal motivation to solve the puzzle at hand cultivates feelings of well-being, even if just momentarily.

And when done regularly, the long-term impact on well-being is even more profound across many domains in life—especially if you truly enjoy what you’re engaged in and you’re not bored or habituated to the puzzle. Solving progressively more complicated puzzles is a great way to combat habituation and contribute to your well-being.

2. Improved IQ Scores

Intelligence Quotient (IQ) has long been thought as a purely genetic trait but, in recent years, we’re learning that it’s trainable as well. You can even raise your IQ by solving certain types of memory puzzles like crosswords for a short time every day.

In fact, research in neuropsychology discovered that doing brain memory-training exercises for just 20–30 minutes five-days per week during a five-week period improves IQ scores by an impressive four points.

In the study, the IQ improvements lasted for up to three months, indicating the extent of gain in intelligence depends on the amount of training. In other words, the more training, the greater the benefit.

This sort of working memory training specifically impacts your “fluid intelligence” or the ability to reason, solve new problems, and think in the abstract. Your fluid intelligence is widely important as it is associated with both professional and educational success.

Similarly, consultant psychologist Maria Leitner also claims that “activities which involve a diverse range of skills plus social interaction, are excellent options if you’re aiming to enhance your IQ.”

So, social puzzles like SCRABBLE can be your best friend in improving your brain power.

3. Delayed Dementia and Alzheimer's

Puzzle solving keeps our brains working for longer.

Cognitive neuroscience researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School conducted a large-scale study of more than 17,000 healthy people aged 50 and over in which they found that solving daily word puzzles such as crosswords is linked to sharper brain function in later life.

The researchers calculated that regular puzzle solving reduces decline in thinking skills by 10 years on average based on nine tests of attention, reasoning, and memory.

Performance on these tests was directly related to puzzle frequency. The more frequent these adults and seniors reported puzzling, the quicker and more accurately they finished these cognitive tasks.

In other words, die-hard puzzlers are more likely to have healthier and younger brains, even functioning at levels a decade younger than their actual age.

This research was presented at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference (AAIC) 2017 to provide further analysis into the lifestyle factors involved in prevention. According to Clive Ballard, expert in age-related diseases, "The next step is to assess whether encouraging people to start playing word games regularly could actually improve their brain function."

4. Improved Memory

Not only does puzzle solving keep our brains working for longer, it also improves short-term recall and working memory.

Applied cognitive psychology research found that puzzle whizzes have extremely strong working memories in that they can store and process different types of perceptions in short-term memory at extraordinarily high levels.

The impact on memory is attributed to the way in which puzzles reinforce existing connections between our brain cells while also generating new associations. The thinking involved can be characterized as a blend of imaginative association and memory.

5. Enhanced Visual-Spatial Reasoning

Researchers in Claremont, California explored the visuospatial and verbal working memory capacities of elite SCRABBLE and crossword experts compared to a control group of college students who had scored 700 or higher on the quantitative and verbal section of the SAT.

While the techniques and strategies used by SCRABBLE and crossword experts differed, both groups of puzzlers exhibited incredible mental agility and working memory capacity compared to the control group.

The crossword experts in particular were incredibly skilled at integrating and accessing visual and verbal cues in their working memory.

6. Sparks Imagination and Productivity

Configuring pieces of a puzzle requires concentration. No matter the kind of puzzle, solving it is an exercise of the mind that can increase both creativity and productivity.

Brain imaging research shows that dopamine—the chemical messenger in the brain that regulates mood and influences how we think and plan—is released every time we do a puzzle, and even every time we put a piece in the right place. This release of dopamine, in turn, encourages us to continue solving and challenging ourselves.

In fact, research from the University of Pennsylvania (and, really, across the entire field of positive psychology) upholds the creative problem-solving process as a powerful intervention to bring out the best in ourselves and others.

Puzzle solving sparks a unique mix of optimism, relaxation, and accomplishment, which can broaden our thinking capacity. This creative insight and positive feedback trains us to not just work harder, but smarter as well.

7. Lower Stress Levels

Working out a puzzle, piece by piece, is a productive way to unwind after a day’s work. For us true puzzlers, it’s like a mini-vacation.

Even as a weekend activity or pastime, puzzle solving is the distraction we need to let go of our worries, relieve stress, and increase mindfulness in the task at hand.

When we’re deeply ingrained in a puzzle, our minds are acutely aware. This level of concentration encourages us to go into a meditative state, decluttering our minds and heightening our focus.

For many, it can be a powerful coping mechanism against everyday stress. There’s really few things more satisfying than working out the last piece of a puzzle, figuring out that final crossword clue, or piecing together the high-scoring word you need to win the game.

8. Heightened Attention to Detail

The ways in which our brain approaches detail-oriented problems and makes connections, even with seemingly unrelated details, is truly fascinating.

With puzzles, we can exercise this powerful brain muscle and engage the parts that notice detail. This sort of brain training can transfer into the real-world, allowing us to more closely examine our surroundings and how all the small parts fit together.

Putting pieces of a puzzle together helps us forget the daily grind. It requires concentration and focus that improves our attention to detail. And we all know the importance of having a keen eye for detail while also being able to see the big picture—both at work and in everyday life.

9. Better Collaboration and Teamwork

Puzzle solving can be either a solitary or collaborative activity. But when it’s done with a partner or a group, it can facilitate deep personal interpersonal connection while also improving participation and productivity towards the end goal.

Board game puzzles like SCRABBLE have for years brought together the young and the old for friendly competition. Today there are also tons of other virtual puzzles and digital problem-solving games that encourage solvers to tackle puzzles collectively, in addition to generating solutions individually.

Such collaborative problem-solving environments are associated with improved participation, speed, and solution quality. The benefits are especially promising for creative, open-ended online games where good solutions are readily apparent.

Early collaboration in such online games also drives continued participation for solvers, regardless of whether or not they’re successful early on. However, experiencing early success in such collaborative online environments is closely tied with increased individual participation and team performance.

These findings are consistent with existing research that emphasizes the importance of user recognition and social context on increased participation in both virtual and real-world collaborative problem-solving settings.

Similarly, researchers from Yale also found that partnering up to solve complex puzzles builds cooperation, interconnectedness, and teamwork.

10. Stronger Problem-Solving Skills

It’s no secret that puzzle solving = better problem solving. The research and anecdotal evidence of which stretches far and wide.

For instance, neuropsychology research discovered that memory tasks such as solving crosswords and other types of puzzles strengthens the various "executive processes" in the brain that are responsible for problem solving.

Solving puzzles allows you to practice essential problem-solving and critical thinking skills such as the process of elimination, trial-and-error, working backwards, visualization, and re-organization.

The Wrap-Up

The benefits of puzzle solving extend deep into our minds and across various domains of life. And the more you train your brain, the more you gain.

What’s your favorite thing about solving puzzles? Did we miss any of the key advantages?