Best Health - - CONTENTS -

Move over, colour­ing books! There’s a new (old) brain-healthy pas­time on the cof­fee table

File this un­der “ev­ery­thing old is new again.” Jig­saw puzzles, the ul­ti­mate par­lour ac­tiv­ity of yore, are gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity as a 21st cen­tury way to deal with stress and anx­i­ety. Caitlin Agnew ex­plains why pick­ing up the pieces is a no-brainer.

WHILE OUT SHOP­PING FOR CHRISTMAS presents last De­cem­ber, I bought my­self a jig­saw puzzle on a whim. It was an un­usual buy to be sure, and one that I now rec­og­nize as an at­tempt at deal­ing with that par­tic­u­lar stress many of us ex­pe­ri­ence dur­ing the hol­i­days. Don’t get me wrong: I love see­ing my fam­ily. But these get­to­geth­ers have a way of putting any per­sonal short­com­ings cen­tre stage. This cheery, pink­themed puzzle had ev­ery­thing I felt I needed to dis­tract my­self in one box and, at $20, the price was right. Why not?


The jig­saw puzzle traces its ori­gins back to the 1700s, when it was cre­ated as an ed­u­ca­tional tool for chil­dren. It later gained main­stream pop­u­lar­ity among adults dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion. “They were cheap to buy and as­sem­ble, and they filled the empty days and empty evenings,” writes nov­el­ist Mar­garet Drabble in her mem­oir The Pat­tern in the Car­pet: A Per­sonal His­tory with Jig­saws. To­day, some of the world’s most renowned minds, in­clud­ing Stephen King, Bill Gates and Queen Eliz­a­beth, are fans. With health ben­e­fits that in­clude ward­ing off mem­ory loss, de­men­tia and Alzheimer’s, it’s easy to see why.

As soon as I started on my puzzle, I knew I’d found ex­actly what I was look­ing for. In­stead of my usual late-night Net­flix binge, I was sort­ing its 1,000 pieces well into the wee hours, and I fin­ished it in just a few days. I felt pos­sessed by the sooth­ing, me­thod­i­cal ac­tion, al­most like I’d been hyp­no­tized or spent hours med­i­tat­ing. The act of putting to­gether a puzzle re­quires both sides of the brain to work to­gether, which con­trib­utes to this zen-like state.


It’s a feel­ing that’s shared by Robyn Breen, a move­ment artist who per­forms as a dancer and in­structs at Mis­fit­stu­dio in Toronto. A few Christ­mases ago at a fam­ily gath­er­ing, Breen was rein­tro­duced to puzzles, and she fell in love with the sooth­ing ef­fect im­me­di­ately. “I thought, ‘Whoa, I feel re­ally good when I’m do­ing this. I feel re­ally chill,’” she says. Breen suf­fers from anx­i­ety, and when she was hav­ing par­tic­u­larly wor­ri­some thoughts about an up­com­ing re­treat she would be lead­ing in Nicaragua, she turned to nightly puz­zling be­fore bed in­stead of pre­scrip­tion med­i­ca­tion. “It’s a way to turn off the un­nec­es­sary thoughts,” Breen ex­plains. It worked, and hav­ing a puzzle on the go has since be­come an es­sen­tial part of her daily rou­tine.

Dr. Su­san Van­der­mor­ris is a clin­i­cal neu­ropsy­chol­o­gist at Toronto’s Bay­crest Health Sciences, a global leader in brain health and ag­ing re­search that’s cel­e­brat­ing its 100th an­niver­sary this year. She says that any type of puzzle is good for the brain and points to the stress-re­liev­ing ben­e­fits of en­gag­ing with jig­saw puzzles, in par­tic­u­lar. “In our hy­per­con­nected world, if you’re phys­i­cally do­ing a pa­per or card­board puzzle, you are, by def­i­ni­tion, dis­con­nected and en­gaged in a task that’s im­mer­sive, away from the in­ter­rup­tions and stresses of day-to-day life,” she says. “And that, of course, is good for your brain health.”

My his­tory with puzzles is life­long, be­gin­ning with the wooden sets my mom bor­rowed from the li­brary that I’d put to­gether on our liv­ing room floor in Thomp­son, Man­i­toba. A puzzle was a com­mon Christmas gift grow­ing up and, like Breen and her fam­ily, we’d tackle them to­gether at the din­ing room table over the course of a few days. “It’s such a nice way to be to­gether, work­ing on this task and help­ing each other out,” Breen says. That nostalgia fac­tor def­i­nitely con­trib­utes to their ap­peal to me to­day.


Dr. Van­der­mor­ris believes that do­ing puzzles with oth­ers boasts even more men­tal ben­e­fits than do­ing them on your own. “It has a cog­ni­tive en­gage­ment piece that’s get­ting your neu­rons fir­ing and keep­ing your brain ac­tive, and then you have so­cial en­gage­ment,” she ex­plains, adding that puzzles pro­vide a rare op­por­tu­nity for in­ter­gen­er­a­tional en­gage­ment. “Get the teenagers off their smart­phones and work­ing on a puzzle with Grandma and sud­denly you’ve got a re­ally nice fam­ily in­ter­ac­tion hap­pen­ing that seems to be harder and harder to come by these days.”

Work­ing on jig­saw puzzles over the past few months has had so many ther­a­peu­tic ben­e­fits for me. Be­yond sim­ply pass­ing the time on a dreary evening, or­ga­niz­ing these lit­tle pieces gives me a sense of con­trol and pur­pose on those days when I feel like I have lit­tle of both, and it’s some­thing I en­joy and look for­ward to do­ing when I get home. Life may not al­ways be per­fect, but find­ing the right piece of the puzzle sure is.


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