The Playful Brain
The Surprising Science of How Puzzles Improve Your Mind
This is your brain on puzzles.
Everyone knows that puzzles can improve your brain function. Now a leading neurosurgeon and a noted puzzle designer team up to reveal the fascinating science behind it. Packed with illuminating insights and dozens of puzzles, this is both a lively book of popular science and an engaging set of exercises in developing a wide array of thinking and memory skills.
We hear a lot these days about enhancing brain performance with mental exercises like crossword puzzles and the currently popular Sudoku. My own interest in puzzles stems from my ongoing effort to develop new and innovative approaches to brain-performance enhancement. I’ve aimed at answering this question: What activities can my readers engage in that will enhance not just the whole brain but distinct brain areas and processes? In Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot, I came up with a program based on twenty-eight suggestions. None of these involved puzzles. In my second brain-enhancement book, Think Smart: A Neuroscientist’s Prescription for Improving Your Brain’s Performance, I asked some of the world’s most prestigious brain scientists to tell me the speciﬁc activities they personally engage in to make their brains work better. During interviews and conversations with those neuroscientists, I was reminded of the importance of puzzles as brain enhancers and, as a result, included a small number of puzzles in Think Smart. At that point I began to look a bit deeper.
Over the years I had always been fascinated with puzzles. They are a fun way to stimulate the brain. But can they actually improve different brain functions, such as memory, reasoning, and three-dimensional visualization, among others? Over the course of writing nineteen books on the brain, I encountered a lot of formal and informal research suggesting the answer to that question is yes. Gradually I became convinced that puzzles can help enhance speciﬁc brain functions and, as studies suggest, actually help ward off mental deterioration.
What I needed, I reasoned, was a brain-puzzle book that included puzzles of every sort accompanied by an explanation of the brain beneﬁts that can be expected from the different ones. As far as I could determine, no such book was available. Sure, any number of brainteaser books existed that contained puzzles purported to challenge the brain. But none of them discussed what happened in the brain while solving the puzzles or provided any explanation of how different puzzles challenged speciﬁc brain areas. Nor did they suggest what kind of puzzle to select in order to improve speciﬁc brain functions. Although I saw the need for such a book and was enthusiastic about writing it, one huge impediment stood in my way: my strictly amateur status as a puzzle solver (forget altogether about my not being a puzzle designer). Since I could go only so far as an amateur puzzle aﬁcionado, I needed to be in touch with a professional: a puzzle master.
Anyone with an interest in puzzles soon comes into contact with my favorite puzzle master, Scott Kim. For years I’ve been fascinated and intrigued with Scott’s puzzle-creating genius. One afternoon, while working on a series of his puzzles I came up with the idea of an innovative performance-enhancement book based on puzzles. The book would combine my knowledge about the brain with Scott’s puzzle-creating talents in order to help our readers increase their brain power via entertaining and instructive puzzle challenges. Scott, as I later learned, had been thinking along similar lines while writing his regular puzzle column for Discover magazine and maintaining his website, www.scottkim.com.
In 2006 my curiosity about the brain–puzzle connection led me to contact Scott. To my delight I discovered that he was familiar with my work as well as the research ﬁndings and published writings of many other neuroscientists. Most important, he was well aware that puzzles can be used as brain enhancers. After speaking to each other for several hours while attending a neuroscience meeting, we both came away convinced that by working in collaboration we could create a unique pathway to enhancing brain function through puzzles. That meeting was the genesis of this book.
When we ﬁnally got together to plan the book, we talked about how we could combine information about the brain with the fun and challenge of solving puzzles. Here’s the plan we came up with: First, I would identify and write about those brain functions that inevitably undergo decline unless deliberate efforts are taken to enhance them. Included here are concentration, memory, ﬁne motor skills, visual observation, logic, numbers, vocabulary, visual-spatial thinking, imagination, and creativity. Then Scott would develop puzzles aimed at engaging and challenging each of these mental functions. Like two jazz musicians working out a contrapuntal melody, we would take up each mental function. I would write about what we know of the relevant brain processing, and Scott would design puzzles aimed at engaging and challenging the brain areas responsible for that function. Obviously we couldn’t cover everything about the brain, so we concentrated on areas that lent themselves most easily to puzzles. The chapters would be self-contained and, because they featured puzzles, fun to read in any sequence according to the interests of the reader—sort of like leisurely making a selection from a box of delicious candy.
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