When I was younger, my mother often had a large jigsaw puzzle on the go on the dining room table. And when I say large, I mean large – 2,000 pieces. She would pore over it on a Saturday afternoon, and the rest of us would add our own piece or two when we walked past and had a moment to spare.
It’s been a long time since I lived at home, and even longer since I have done a jigsaw puzzle, but recently I have been nostalgically yearning to recreate a few of those quiet afternoons.And so I was thrilled when my partnerTim gave me a jigsaw puzzle for Christmas.
With a week of leave still at my disposal, I duly staked my spot at the dining room table, and began sorting the pieces into different bowls based on colour. When this alone took hours, I started to think that maybe I had bitten off more than I could chew – even more so when I put together the edge pieces and discovered the full size of it. But they say that the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time, and so I persevered with my 1,500 bite behemoth.
Then I started to get into it, and suddenly whole hours would fly by as I stared and fiddled, sorted pieces and analysed the intricacies of the picture. Often, I would sit for 30 minutes or longer and not place a single piece. And then, suddenly, I would have a run of luck, and get hooked all over again. On more than one occasion, I would sit down in the early afternoon and by the time I surfaced, it was already dusk, and I’d been so engrossed that I had no concept of time. And the best part was that while I was “puzzling”, I wasn’t thinking about anything else – as a perpetual “worrier” who can’t sit idle, it was the ultimate escape. “You look so chilled!”Tim would exclaim after each puzzle session.
After three solid days at work, I must admit that my OCD started to take over, as I felt I hadn’t made enough progress, and with the hardest (most non-descript sections) to complete, I was getting frustrated. Tim duly declared a puzzle holiday, and a few days later I returned to the task refreshed and motivated.
But just how to do you piece together a giant square of black, or a blank patch of all white? As colour became less of a differentiator, I had to start using shape to find my next piece. It took a bit of time to adjust to, but then a funny thing happened . . . my subconscious started doing it for me! My hand would shoot across the table, pick up a piece I didn’t know I had been looking for, and place it in the perfect spot. And when it happened numerous times, I started to believe that I was, indeed, becoming a puzzle ninja. Wax on, wax off anyone?
I mentioned this to a friend who is a doctor and she exclaimed with glee:“It’s because you’re growing new neurons!” “What? Is that even possible?” I asked.
Well, apparently it is! It doesn’t matter how old you are, your brain is always capable of learning new skills, and in doing so, growing new neurons. So while I had been relaxing over my puzzle, my clever brain had been beavering around in the background adding to its arsenal. Aren’t our brains amazing?
There is one caveat though – you have to keep using your newly acquired skill, otherwise in about three months, new neurons will grow to replace them.
’Nough said, that’s all the motivation I need to keep on puzzling – and also looking for new challenges for my brain. No wonder the Japanese encourage lifelong learning, which may even explain why they live so long.
So this February, during the month of love, why don’t you show some love for your brain and give it something new to do, and acquire a new skill at the same time? Red roses are so last season; new neurons are the new gifts of love. Safe Travels