Saturday 13 April 2013

Why Puzzle?

First let me give a small warning! This blog post is rather different to my previous ones. It is a book review and a gratuitous series of photos of some new acquisitions. Read on only if you are really interested and please do Contact me with your thoughts on this subject.

At work (Attending/Consultant anaesthetist in a major teaching hospital) I am well known as the complete nutter that always has some kind of toys on him, always doing or attempting to do something that looks impossible! Plus if I do an operation with a nerve block or spinal anaesthetic then my awake patient can be easily distracted with a puzzle or two. One patient even complained to a colleague when it wasn't going to be me and he wanted a new puzzle to play with during his operation!

Of course, I'm also always handing out my toys to colleagues and friends to challenge them to solve them. Now if I was seen spending my entire time doing Killer Sudoku puzzles then no-one would think anything of it but I am constantly asked why do I do it? Why torture myself so? Why do I continually attempt to do things which look completely impossible? The twisty puzzles like my 3x5x7 cuboid really seem to upset people.

3 of these bottles remain unsolved!!!
Well interestingly, my initial reason for starting to puzzle was to distract my mind from a very nasty event at work more than 2 years ago. The several months with the Revomaze satisfactorily wiped out all my nasty imagery and set me on the straight and narrow but after that, my contact with Rox, Neil, Allard, Oli and the rest of the guys from the Midlands Puzzle Party, ensured that I had gotten thoroughly hooked. From then on, I have continually tried to push myself to collect and solve more and more ridiculously difficult puzzles - you all know this because you have been along for the ride! I must always point out to people that despite owning some beautiful works of craftsmanship from Eric Fuller, Brian Young, Jerry McFarland and Wil Strijbos, some of which have cost me an arm, a leg and a kidney (no-one would take my liver for some reason!) I always want my puzzles to be played with. They are not just for display and collecting, a puzzle is there to be solved - it may take days or months or longer but the aim is to solve them. Some have been on my shelves unsolved for over 2 years!

When questioned about this habit, I began to say to people that Alzheimers runs in my family and I was trying to stave it off! Now to some extent, that is true, it does run in my family but only in the elderly (78+ year old) females on my mother's side. So I'm probably safe for the time being! But this claim did get me thinking - will doing all these puzzles make any difference to the onset of dementia? I really did not know. About a month or so ago a PR agent from Souvenir press contacted me out of the blue via my Contact page and offered to send me a book to review which I thought might just answer this very question. So here is my review of the book - I did not promise the PR agent any particular outome, I just said I'd read it and if suitable post something. Read on if this subject might be of interest to you.

How Puzzles Improve Your Brain is a paperback book published in 2013 by Richard Restak. It's cover price is £12.99 and for that you get 294 pages. Richard Restak is a Neurologist working in the US who seems to have the gift of writing popular science books and articles as well as maintaining a reasonable research interest and a clinical practice. He appears well qualified to give an opinion on the subject and he has teamed up with one of the worlds leading game and puzzle designers (although alas not of mechanical puzzles).

Bill Cutler's 66 Piece cube
Now, I personally wanted to know whether there was any true scientific evidence that undertaking puzzle solving could prevent dementia. This really meant that the physician in me was wanting to see a randomly controlled trial with people at risk of dementia or it's very early signs undertaking puzzles in 2 groups, with a decent power analysis to establish required sample size followed by a rigorously pursued scientific technique and publication in a major scientific journal of a study showing a p-value of <0.05 that puzzling prevented dementia. Unfortunately this book could not give that to me - not because the book was poor, but because the study has not been carried out and unfortunately will NEVER be carried out. :-(

There is no real evidence as far as I can tell that brain training is
Involution from Scott Peterson
particularly real. Most puzzles when practiced makes one better at doing those same puzzles again but we are all aware that doing lots of one particular kind of puzzle certainly makes it easier to do others of a similar kind. We had a similar discussion on the Twisty puzzle forum on this very matter and as you'd expect from a forum of this type there were a number of highly qualified people with knowledge and opinions. A very telling quote from Brandon:
Solving twisty puzzles makes you better at twisty puzzles. The benefits outside the twisty realm are either minor or non-existent.
Even some of the best articles on the matter (I can provide pdf's if people really want them) find only a link between brain activity and the development of neurological decline but cannot establish causation; in fact undertaking puzzle activity may seem to delay dementia more by masking the early symptoms than anything else! The latest decent sized study published in Nature left us with only the idea that someone needs to study it harder!

Congestion by Maurice Vigouroux 
Back to the book review - the basic premise of the book begins with a discussion of the fact that over the last few years the public has become obsessed with "training the brain", with various console games becoming "must have" items and with Sudoku of various forms sweeping the world like wildfire. Everyone has become obsessed with improving their minds and certainly preventing deterioration. The aim of this book was to give example puzzles of every sort and to discuss the brain benefits that could come from them. The author(s) provide many many examples of different puzzle types, all varying in difficulty and a discussion of how this might be good for your brain - the solutions are always given later in the chapter and they state that it is not always necessary to solve the puzzles, just the act of trying stimulates the requisite part of the brain and "improves"it. These puzzles were beautifully designed and a nice progression to help keep your thought processes working and not get bored. I had an absolute ball with the chapters on visual and spatial thinking - especially as I am not good at packing puzzles.

419 move box by Kim Klobucher
Whilst I was disappointed that the book could not prove that I was doing the right thing by puzzling constantly, it was thoroughly well researched and has a great bibliography for those interested in further reading. It is very entertaining and forced me to try puzzles and thought processes which I was not used to and even provided some decent evidence for how my brain was working on the problems with quite a lot of work from functional MRI scanning data as well as descriptions of how damaged brains were unable to carry out certain types of task.

Don't let my criticism of the lack of real evidence detract from this book! I enjoyed it very much! It made me think and play in ways I had not done before and actually explained what my brain was doing whilst attempting these puzzles. It is well worth a look for your own entertainment. It can be bought as a paperback or in Kindle format from here.

Finally one more gratuitous picture of new puzzles - some burrs designed by Alfons Eyckmans:

Keeper 42, Sunna & 12 Bastards - beautiful and very difficult!


  1. Speaking for myself Kevin my interest stems from the desire to take things apart as a child, or to put it another way; to see how things work. I'm not sure whether this makes me a true puzzler (as described above) or someone who is interested in just the mechanical branch of puzzles. I have only a passing interest in book/brain/coding/maths/jigsaw/packing puzzle types. An interesting post though!

    1. Thank you for the positive feedback! I was very unsure how well it would go down. But it's nice to know that at least 1 person enjoyed it!

      My interests pretty much overlap yours and I know you are waiting (just like me) for anything new from Arteludes so you can take it apart too!

  2. Yeah very interesting!! I also had the "take things" apart mindset as a kid and I also enjoyed making things (ie. Knex and out of cardboard!). I also love doing the Sudokus and Mirrorgrams in the daily Mirror. I aim to do a Sudoku every day with my breakfast, the Mirrorgrams I'm not so good at.

    The book sounds good though, I'll have to look into getting a copy, when I actually have money spare, which may be a while!! Either that or birthday/christmas ;)

    1. It's a good read and certainly pretty good value for money

  3. I'm waiting for the follow up book "How puzzles make you poor" ;-)

    1. Never too poor that you won't buy another puzzle!

      At least you don't have to buy shoes, handbags and almost the entire Boden catalogue for your wife!