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May 17, 2017

Infrequently Asked Questions: Do puzzles really 'train your brain'?

From crossword puzzles to Nintendo's formerly trendy "Brain Age" game, the idea of brain training has become somewhat of an accepted idea in today's culture. But however mind-stretching those puzzles may seem, how much are they really helping your brain keep fit?

In search of an answer, we reached out to Ausim Azizi, chair of neurology at Temple University's Lewis Katz School of Medicine, for an answer.

In pop culture, it's a popular notion that you can do puzzles to 'train your brain.' But, as an adult, can you actually do that? To improve memory and cognition?

So, the answer to that is generally, 'Yes,' but doing puzzles improves your brain only in doing puzzles. And the way you think about that is like doing sports: If you do tennis, you're not necessarily going to be good at doing football; you'll just be good at doing tennis. But overall, doing tennis is helping your general physical abilities and making you sprier. So, the way to think of puzzles is like that. If you do use your brain and do more cognitive tasks, the level of which is higher, you're going to train your brain in that particular task but there might be other kinds of benefits that can fall out of it.

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What are some other benefits you could get from it?

If you're training to be a tennis player, you do a lot of running around and get a lot of cardiovascular workouts and all that, then it's not just being skilled in tennis, it's making your whole body a little fitter. So that's how you should think about doing puzzles with the brain. It's not necessarily going to make you overall smarter, but it will make you a little fitter and you'll be good at doing puzzles, in particular.

Is there a difference between solving a jigsaw puzzle as opposed to a Sudoku puzzle, in terms of benefits?

Any kind of puzzle you do, you're going to be good at doing those puzzles. And the so-called fallout of that, or side benefits, are you can do simple things and it makes the brain fitter in general.

Has research evolved on this at all in the past few years?

There's not a huge amount of research, but the research done has shown just that: that if you do puzzles, they'll make your brain good at solving puzzles in particular -- it doesn't necessarily make your brain good at everything. You're not going to be doing calculus if you do puzzles.

Is there an amount of time you'd need to dedicate to a puzzle to get the benefits?

In general, the more you use your brain for puzzles, solving a math problem, or going traveling, or reading or anything else, it's going to be good for the brain. It's not a specific amount of time where I can prescribe half an hour of puzzles and your brain will be fit. That's not how it works. If you do more brain activity of any kind, the brain becomes fitter.

And how do you even define what qualifies as a puzzle? I was thinking about it earlier, and even daily activities we do anyway -- like navigating in a car -- have puzzle-like qualities to them. 

Correct. That keeps the brain -- the more activity the brain has, the more fit it gets. And a lot of things our memory systems, in particular, like is repetition. The more repeating you do with certain tasks, the better you get at it.

Do you think, to some extent, we get these puzzles in our daily life anyway?

I agree with that, yes.

What do you recommend to patients in terms of caring for their mind and staying sharp?

A couple things. One is that if you keep active, doing more things in a given day, that will keep you going. Second is to keep doing the tasks you usually do and don't let anything go. And third is that physical fitness itself has a greater impact on brain fitness than we realize. The exercise of keeping the body fit actually helps keep the brain fit, as opposed to just doing puzzles. There are a couple things that happen during exercise: one is that the blood flow to the brain increases. And exercise, by itself, releases chemicals in the body [that are essential for a fit mind]. So all of those feed into keeping a fit mind and memory system.

So maybe we should be doing Sudoku puzzles while on the treadmill?

Yeah, that's good. Then you'll be good at two of those things. So, the point I'm making is that these items marketed for brain training -- yes, they're good to do, but they'll only be training you on those specific tasks. And they're not necessarily going to be training you to do everything and make you smarter.

Basically, a math puzzle might make me smarter at math but not necessarily make me remember to get milk at the grocery store tomorrow.