Brain Health, Neuroplasticity and How it May Relate to Puzzles

By |2016-07-20T12:50:20+00:00February 14th, 2014|All Puzzles, Put together Puzzles|0 Comments

It’s safe to assume that everyone reading this loves puzzles. But what do puzzles and games do for us besides relax and entertain? From some reading I’ve been doing around the web, more than you may think.

Neuroplasticity is an emerging new science that looks at how the brain isn’t as hard wired as we may think it to be. It instead looks at the brain as a soft wired piece of equipment which adapts to the needs of individuals over time. It is a sort of functional evolution that occurs very subtly and quite necessarily for people when they require it, or when they work at it.

The reason the body would need something like neuroplasticity is for individual development. Everyone has a brain which is pretty much the same at birth, but everyone has a different life. We’ll look closely at what neuroplasticity is and how it may relate to games and puzzles.

Neuroplasticity and How it May Relate to Puzzles

My first exposure to neuroplasticity was thanks to one of the leaders in the field, Michael Merzenich. It may be fair to say that he wrote the book on the subject as his book Soft-Wired: How the New Science of Brain Plasticity Can Change Your Life is a valuable resource to all of those within the field.

a plastic brain model

Not the type of ‘plastic brain’ we’re talking about!
Photo credit to GreenFlames09

The basics on Neuroplasticity, as outlined by Kendra Cherry, are:

  • Functional plasticity – the brain moves certain abilities that are typically housed in a damaged area of the brain to an undamaged area
  • Structural plasticity – the brain changes its physical structure in response to learning

These two functions may sound different, but they both relate to how the brain changes itself form the ‘stock’ brain you are given at birth to something that better suits your current needs.

Neuroplasticity in action for a healthy human brain

In an article for Psychiatry Online, Dr. Jill Kays acknowledges, first of all, that previous thinking on the brain saw it as a static organ which did not change once full development was reached. She then talks about finding new neurons in the adult human brain. This opened up the possibility for a dynamic brain that is “physically changed by both internal and external factors.”

This excited those who worked in fields such as psychiatry for their work with those who have PTSD, depression, schizophrenia and a host of other brain related diseases, and even those who have suffered brain damage due to strokes, as it allowed for the possibility of changing the brain in a way which allowed for completely normal function to once again be possible.

But what about those of us with well functioning brains? Are we left to have our brains remain hard wired until they are damaged in some way? No. Two important findings were discovered with normal human brains:

  • Physically performing a task repeatedly “found significantly increased cortical representation with task practice for the involved muscle groups, suggesting increased neural connections.” Practice not only makes perfect, but it makes your mind perfect for the task.
  • Mentally rehearsing the task gave similar results. This showed that “mental rehearsal alone may produce neuroplastic changes in the brain.” You can will your way to a better brain through visualization.

If you’re thinking ‘great, science proved that practice makes me better at things’ with an air of cynicism, you’re thinking too literally. What science is showing is that practice, through physical and mental exercise, makes your brain better adapted to performing tasks – your brain changes to suit your needs and that is pretty significant for those working in fields that involve therapy for the aforementioned conditions and a host of others.

How does neuroplasticity relate to puzzles?

I am not a scientist, I don’t have access to an MRI machine, and I only talk to people on a couch when we’re discussing what we’re watching on TV. The evidence above, however, speaks for itself. All of this can easily relate to continual learning, which you can do through using new puzzles and games which stimulate your brain.

a human brain in a jar

Don’t shake it, use it while you’ve got it.
Photo credit to Steve Lawson.

The puzzles which we have on offer at Puzumi Puzzles are, in my mind, the best example of a physical puzzle which can continually challenge the mind. They are multi-solution, can be used as a turn based strategy game, these features can not be offered by traditional jigsaw puzzles. Other similar games, puzzles and puzzle games that can offer this would include:

These are all strategy based games which involve the mind in continual planning and thinking – they are not games of chance determined by the roll of a dice.

There are no scientists saying that these types of games can cure brain atrophy, but they are saying that the theory of neuroplasticity can maintain and promote brain health through mental exercise – strategy game exercises your mind.

There is no evidence which shows that solving puzzles will turn yours into a superhuman mind, capable of taking on Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, but the evidence presented clearly shows that puzzles can keep your ‘plastic’ mind growing, active, healthy and sufficiently stimulated to continue functioning at a high level for years to come.

About the Author:

Matthew Yeoman is the resident writer, researcher and puzzle player for Puzumi.com, a puzzle distributor. He spends his time writing, reading and getting beaten at puzzle competitions whenever he challenges his girlfriend.

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