Sudoku is one of the most famous types of number puzzles. Its premise is very simple: fill a grid with numbers from 1 to 9 while making sure there are no repeated digits in each row and column. As any player will quickly find out, this is easier said than done.
Sudoku involves the use of memory (which numbers are already placed and where and which ones are missing) as well as logical reasoning (if X is true, then Y is false). The player also has to analyze and keep in mind the relation between the puzzle as a whole and its parts.
The benefits of this type of brain puzzle seem apparent right away, and indeed they were already corroborated by a 2019 study1 that showed that individuals over 50 who play Sudoku report more quality cognitive functions than those of the same age group who do not play this type of puzzle.
Likewise, because Sudoku engages the prefrontal cortex, it has also been singled out as a possible tool to be used for “cognitive remediation training in neuropsychiatric disorders.”2
Furthermore, Latin Squares which are the inspiration for Sudoku are even frequently used in IQ tests or deductive reasoning tests, which goes to show that players really need developed cognitive skills to solve them.
The classic family board game is well-known to help improve vocabulary and spelling skills both in adults and kids. However, Scrabble also offers other less obvious benefits.
It has been shown that, compared with occasional players, experts employ more regions of the brain when playing. While the firsts engage mostly the region of the brain associated with word recognition and meaning, the experts activate additional regions and seem to rely more on the use of memory and visual perceptual skills.3 Thus, playing Scrabble regularly can be seen as good brain training not only to improve one’s vocabulary but also other unsuspected mental skills.
Crosswords is another word game that also falls under the category of types of brain puzzles. It helps to develop verbal reasoning skills and exposes the players to new vocabulary paired with meanings. However, as with Scrabble, it has also been shown to train and improve working memory, concentration, and other executive functions of the brain.4
Research has been contradictory on the matter of Crosswords preventing the decline of cognitive functions or not, but prevention and improvement do not always go hand in hand. Even if these word puzzles cannot delay the decay of mental abilities, that does not exclude their usefulness in improving them.
The classic game of assembling pieces to form an image is also a type of brain puzzle. Jigsaw puzzles have been linked particularly with the improvement and development of spatial intelligence, with a focus on visual-spatial abilities.5 They can even be perfect brain games for kids, as it has been shown that they help improve “general and pictorial metarepresentational development” in 4-year-old kids.6
Despite the simplicity of this type of game, the act of assembling the pieces forces the players to visualize the complete picture in their minds and try to find the placement of the pieces within that image. Building a jigsaw puzzle also engages short-term memory (remembering the picture, the pieces, and where you last saw them) as well as concentration.
FreeCell is one of the many card games of the Solitaire family. It is also one of the best to train your brain while having fun.
The goal of the game is to simply reorganize the cards by suit and in ascending order, starting with the Aces and ending with the Kings. The difficulty lies in the restrictive rules to move the cards around to access the ones needed.
FreeCell is a great brain puzzle because it engages memory, concentration, and reasoning skills. While playing the game, the players must analyze the tableau, devise a strategy and plan ahead to reach the needed cards, balance their number of free cells with the amount moves they believe they will need to take, and finally decide if a move would be more profitable at that moment or if it would be best to delay it and collect more gains later on.
Even if it seems like a mindless card game, there are a lot of cognitive skills being used at once. FreeCell is so good at engaging these different types of reasoning, that it is even being used as an instrument to predict the cognitive decline in elders.7
1 Brooker, H, Wesnes, KA, Ballard, C, et al (2019). The relationship between the frequency of number-puzzle use and baseline cognitive function in a large online sample of adults aged 50 and over. Int J Geriatr Psychiatry. 34: 932– 940. https://doi.org/10.1002/gps.5085
2 Ashlesh, P., Deepak, K. K., & Preet, K. K. (2020). Role of prefrontal cortex during Sudoku task: fNIRS study. Translational neuroscience, 11(1), 419–427. https://doi.org/10.1515/tnsci-2020-0147
3 Protzner, Andrea & Hargreaves, Ian & Campbell, J.A. & Myers-Stewart, Kaia & Van Hees, Sophia & Goodyear, Bradley & Sargious, Peter & Pexman, Penny. (2015). This is Your Brain on Scrabble: Neural Correlates of Visual Word Recognition in Competitive Scrabble Players as Measured During Task and Resting-State. Cortex. 40. 10.1016/j.cortex.2015.03.015; Hargreaves, I. S., Pexman, P. M., Zdrazilova, L., & Sargious, P. (2012). How a hobby can shape cognition: visual word recognition in competitive Scrabble players. Memory & cognition, 40(1), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.3758/s13421-011-0137-5
4 Brooker, H, Wesnes, KA, Ballard, C, et al. (2019). An online investigation of the relationship between the frequency of word puzzle use and cognitive function in a large sample of older adults. Int J Geriatr Psychiatry. 34: 921– 931. https://doi.org/10.1002/gps.5033; Toma, M., Halpern, D. F., and Berger, D. E. (2014), Cognitive Abilities of Elite Nationally Ranked SCRABBLE and Crossword Experts, Appl. Cognit. Psychol., 28, pages 727– 737, doi: 10.1002/acp.3059
5 Fissler, P., Küster, O. C., Laptinskaya, D., Loy, L. S., von Arnim, C., & Kolassa, I. T. (2018). Jigsaw Puzzling Taps Multiple Cognitive Abilities and Is a Potential Protective Factor for Cognitive Aging. Frontiers in aging neuroscience, 10, 299. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnagi.2018.00299
6 Doherty, M.J., Wimmer, M.C., Gollek, C., Stone, C. and Robinson, E.J. (2021), Piecing Together the Puzzle of Pictorial Representation: How Jigsaw Puzzles Index Metacognitive Development. Child Dev, 92: 205-221. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13391
7 Jimison, Holly & Pavel, Misha & Mckanna, James & Pavel, Jesse. (2004). Unobtrusive Monitoring of Computer Interactions to Detect Cognitive Status in Elders. IEEE transactions on information technology in biomedicine : a publication of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society. 8. 248-52. 10.1109/TITB.2004.835539.