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Doing puzzles can help with your mental health

Posted May 22, 2020 4:49 p.m. EDT
Updated May 22, 2020 5:54 p.m. EDT

Molly Gillikin is 5 years old and has spent a good bulk of time during this pandemic doing puzzles with her dad.

"I do them with my family, and they are fun," she said.

Molly’s sentiment probably feels familiar to parents who have dug deep into the closet to pull out old jigsaw puzzles the last few months.

Puzzles take time, patience, and eventually provide a payoff — that final piece.

"I think you are working so hard to solve this problem right and all of sudden you are looking for that thrill, that high of finishing it," said Jason Gillikin, Molly’s dad.

This feeling is actually coming from the brain, and it can help with mental health during uncertain times.

"When you think about puzzles from the neuroscience perspective and what is going on in the brain, puzzles pack a big punch," said Dr. Nicole Calakos, Duke professor of Neurology and Neurobiology.

A recent study from Drexel University showed that people enjoy tough tasks because the brain sends a reward signal when you have an insight or when you have that "A-Ha" moment.

"If it was successful and it was a good outcome, dopamine gets sent out," Calakos said.

She wasn’t involved with the study but has been studying the brain for more than 30 years. "That’s a little bit like a pat on the back ‘good job’. We all love that."

Puzzles, and this includes crosswords, Sudoku or even a video game, also engage the brain and distract from worries like when the pandemic may end.

"That level of focus and attention is tapping in to what we are calling mindfulness," Calakos said.

Tasks that engage the brain in this way can also help to create a sense of control and routine. These are all reasons to dust off the old box in the attic.

"Right now, we are all struggling with being out of our routines and all of the other new worries and uncertainties," Calakos said. "So we have a lot of stress rattling around, and I think, at a very high level, puzzles are engaging us and giving us an escape from this."

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