Puzzles not only forge family bonds, they also power the brain, says Geeta Padmanabhan

It’s hot/pouring outside? Budget and energy running low? Pull out that 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle you put away as a kid. Gather family around, check on food and drinks, switch on soft music and settle down for a bout of interlocking fun. No better way to bond, say psychologists. Good for developing a host of skills, say Math teachers. It’s time this “passion for perplexity” got its place under the lights.

In a traffic-choked city where outdoor entertainment comes at a huge cost, you may have to turn to the good-old board game for bonding and brain food. “A jigsaw puzzle is like an algebraic equation,” said Naren, 13, whose family plays and gifts JPs. “It involves using known information to solve an unknown. For example, if Aristotle lives in Athens and Athens is in Greece, then Aristotle lives in Greece. Similarly, if a jigsaw piece fits into a certain place, and another piece gets located close to that position, you understand the two pieces are connectable. This skill helps in solving many kinds of problems, and strengthens the mind.”

Origin of puzzles

The puzzle is officially 250 years old. In the 1760s, John Spilsbury, a European map-maker broke a wooden map of the British Empire into pieces for upper class kids to assemble and learn geography. More “Dissected Maps,” followed, setting off interest in jigsaw puzzles on both sides of the Atlantic. By 1900, the kid puzzle had evolved into a party game in the U.S. In early 20th Century, jigsaw puzzle travelled back to the “continent” to rival Bridge and Bowling in popularity.

Cheaper, mass-produced cardboard JPs appeared during the Great Depression to entertain families hit hard by recession. Reportedly, during those terrible days of job-loss and poverty, this put-them-together puzzle was a major source of family entertainment. It helped hold families together. Kept people going, providing them with a sense of accomplishment.

People across age and interests seem to find gains in the game.

Therapeutic

Connections, the puzzle company, claims their Healing Puzzles combine “naturally holistic activity with the power of spirituality”, quiet the mind and induce a state of “creative meditation”. Wow!

At the ground level, scientific studies have quantified the benefits: JPs encourage positive visualisation; help kids develop hand-eye coordination, fine-tune their motor skills. Puzzles create literal connections between right and left brain and among individual brain cells, which increases their ability to learn. The MacArthur Study found that people who participate in board games tend to push off brain illnesses such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Placing even one piece successfully encourages the production of dopamine, a brain chemical that improves learning and memory.

Solve JPs for a de-stressing time pass, stack JPs for socialising and kindling brain movement. Pick the right level of challenge so you can focus on its fun side. There are JPs that make you laugh, those that build stories and ones based on art. Savour the feeling of success on completion.

Splinter skills

“Jigsaw puzzles are about developing splinter skills,” said Jaya Krishnaswamy of Madhuram Narayan Centre. “It’s spatial relationship, concentration, focus. You learn to see the whole picture first. In autistic children, it could foster social relationship. Games like these help us know what potential kids have, what can be developed.”

Sriram and Girija, parents of Aishwarya, who is autistic, agree. When a jigsaw puzzle tumbled out of a cupboard at MN Centre, Aishwarya 10, who was nearby, sat down to solve it. “The teachers noticed she had a flair for it,” said Sriram. “She now does a 500-piece puzzle in four hours and takes a week to do a 1,000-piece one.”

Sriram isn’t sure how she cracks it. “She doesn’t do it by colour,” he said. “The Krypt challenge she solves is just silver all through. It must be the shape and obviously she has a phenomenal memory.” Mom Girija finds her relaxed when she sits with the puzzle. “Aishwarya solves even moving puzzles where mistakes are possible, puzzles where no two pieces are alike,” she said.

“Putting pieces together is something we do all the time,” Sriram pointed out. “When rupee notes/important papers are torn, when a precious vase is broken, when we arrange tiles.” It’s an artistic pursuit.

Start kids off with 4-10-20-piece puzzles, he said. Assembling engages them; the challenge helps them with engineering, math, memory and imagination. If it’s a party puzzle, well, count it in for team spirit!

Wood-cut Par Puzzles and other handcrafted puzzles are valued antique items now.

Anne D. Williams has written a complete history of the game in The Jigsaw Puzzle: Piecing Together a History