When I give a presentation about brain health and fitness, there are always a few people who come tell me afterward that they do crossword puzzles everyday. They heard that mental exercise is good for the brain so they are pleased and proud to report that they do the best they can to maintain their brain functions. But are they really? What if I was a gym instructor? Would the same people tell me proudly that to keep their whole body in shape they do biceps movements everyday, and that’s all they do? I DO feel like I was this gym instructor when I hear the crossword puzzles claim! Solving crossword puzzles repetitively is not the best habit for two reasons.
First, the first crossword puzzles one did were truly stimulating but the marginal value declines with repetition. You may remember that the role of neuroplasticity is to allow the brain to change in reaction to new events. Doing the same task over and over will not trigger neuroplastic changes in your brain. This is why novelty is necessary when trying to exercise the brain. And novelty necessarily means challenge. A new task will require more effort than something a very familiar one.
Second, solving crossword puzzles engages only a small portion of the brain: mostly some language and memory retrieval areas. What about the rest of the brain? If you want a sharper brain, you need to exercise your whole brain, not just one or two functions. This means that you need to find a variety of different exercises or habits that will engage different brain functions.
To get you started here is one brain teaser for each main cognitive ability: memory, attention, language, executive functions, etc. Enjoy!
Mrs. Life says
And here I thought crossword puzzles are pretty helpful in boosting brain power. I think more than ever, I feel the need to exercise my brain. It’s been getting lagged by my frequent exposure to the Internet that I’m quite scared of how much it’ll deteroriate if I wont help stave off the effects.
Nick Almond says
Unfortunately, we have come across a similar problem many times before, which is how do we define a crossword. In the UK, we have three different types of crosswords and our research has shown that cryptic crosswords are very effective at improving metacognition which declines in healthy aging.
Dr Michelon is right that doing a simple crossword every day will not stave off the cognitive decline seen in aging. However, cryptic crosswords have a number of different facets which promote different cognitive functions.
It is true that the effect of cryptic crosswords was greater in participants who were novices at attempting such crosswords. However, compared to a placebo activity, even expert crossword solvers show an increase in cognitive awareness when attempting cryptic crosswords regularly.
Although a range of cognitive activities should be undertaken regularly, the cryptic crossword is still the most effective at increasing metacognition in later life, but of course further research is always needed.
Dr. Pascale Michelon says
Thanks for sharing these results with us Nick: Very interesting! What are the references for the studies you are mentioning?