The humble jigsaw has been around since the 1700’s and kept generations of us entertained on those cold/wet days long before the advent of Blu-Ray, Netflix and games consoles. Originally developed as an educational tool, primarily for children, the jigsaw is enjoying a considerable renaissance with the likes of Rory McIlroy, Patrick Stewart, Bill Gates and even Queen Elizabeth all reportedly being avid fans.
Beneath the surface of the gentle traditions of the jigsaw puzzle however are some extremely important (and sometimes surprising) benefits and there are studies which increasingly show that adults who indulge in this pastime can gain a host of improvements to both their mental health and general well-being; to such an extent that it may well improve their overall life-expectancy. Whilst this may seem like a bold claim, reports such as the MacArthur Study provide ample supporting evidence and below we outline some of the key ways in which jigsaws have been shown to help adults in their everyday life.
Better mental health
The first, and one of the most important areas where jigsaw puzzles can help us is with improved memory and cognitive function. Completing jigsaws actually provides excellent exercise for the brain helping to strengthen the existing relationships between our brain cells as well as generating new connections through the application of elementary reasoning and concepts such as the process of elimination. These in turn improve mental speed and acuity and research at the University of Michigan suggests that an adult can expect to improve their overall IQ by tackling jigsaw puzzles for as little as 25 minutes per day.
Jigsaws are also particularly useful in improving short-term memory and attention to detail as we are encouraged to recognise shapes and colours and put together a mental image of the “bigger picture” as we work out which pieces will fit together and where. Regularly solving jigsaw puzzles thus helps us improve our spatial awareness, coordination and reasoning which are key skills required for a raft of everyday task from crossing the road or driving a car to sport and DIY, however these same skills can in turn be fundamental parts of far more complex tasks allowing us to be more innovative and adaptive. As jigsaw puzzles require a degree of trial and error they encourage us to take different approaches to problem solving, almost subconsciously we are devising, testing and adapting theories during the process which leads to better problem solving skills and the ability to apply critical thinking, all of which are abilities that can easily be transferred into our personal and working lives. If we think of some of the most skilled professions in the world, such as architects, chemists, engineers, pilots, surgeons or artists we can see that each requires very astute visual and/or spatial development and it is easy to understand how many of the skills we would require to complete a jigsaw might equally be applied to their roles.
In addition to enhancing our existing cognitive powers, researchers have found that adults suffering with impaired memory who worked on a jigsaw just a couple of times a week showed improved memory function and application and that the effects of Alzheimer’s could be slowed or even reversed. Building jigsaws actively stimulates both sides of the brain with the left side dealing with elements requiring logic and order whilst the right side provides the creative and intuitive spark. Our “humble” jigsaws is one of the few things which so effectively stimulates both sides of the brain and explains why they have been such a popular learning tool to help with child development and are now being promoted as an ideal way to protect our brains against future decline or even aid those affected by brain trauma or ailments like dementia. Indeed there is direct correlation between the number of years someone has been completing jigsaw puzzles and their chances of developing Alzheimer’s, with evidence that the risk can be reduced by up to a third so the sooner an adult starts tackling jigsaws on a regular basis the better.
Modern medicine is attempting to move towards a more “holistic” approach these days, looking at our health as a whole so things like our mood, levels of stress, concentration and fatigue are becoming just as important as any physical symptoms and another of the benefits of jigsaw puzzles is that they can dramatically improve these factors. Completing a jigsaw increases our production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that affects our mood. The more success we have, the more dopamine is released and the better we feel about ourselves, so our motivation naturally increases. Dopamine is also a major contributor in improving memory and concentration so by completing jigsaws frequently an adult can potentially establish a cycle of continuous improvement. Whilst jigsaws are designed to be challenging, the right puzzle can also be incredibly relaxing because our brain transitions from a Beta (wakeful) state to Alpha, which is closer to that we reach when dreaming. This is sometimes referred to as “focused” or “creative meditation” and allows us to clear our minds and put aside any external concerns as we focus on the task in hand, reducing stress and contributing to improved mood and self-confidence.
On the whole, if we’re relaxed, confident and less stressed it is far easier to concentrate which makes us more productive at home and at work. The more progressive companies are beginning to recognise this and include jigsaw puzzles and the like in their break areas to allow employees to relax and return to work more refreshed and focused. Equally completing a jigsaw with friends or family can engender collaborative skills, building on people’s abilities to communicate and improving relationships between those involved.
Better physical health
Beyond the simple “feel good” factors detailed above, there are also some specific physical benefits of putting a jigsaw together. It can help reduce things like heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate which are all major contributory factors towards our overall health. In addition jigsaw puzzles are excellent for improving and maintaining our fine motor skills, in other words our ability to manipulate smaller objects and even (to a lesser extent) our gross motor skills such as limb movement. Vision, perception and recognition are all aided through the use of jigsaws and all of these factors can prove to be of vital benefit to our general well-being, the more mentally and physically stimulated we are the more readily our bodies can combat the effects of ageing.
As you can see from the above, jigsaws can be advantageous to us in both mind and body, so if you are one of those who hadn’t really considered the benefits in the past, hopefully this article will have gone at least some way towards convincing you. If you would like more information on how jigsaws can be used to aid childhood development or to assist those suffering from Dementia why not check out our articles on each!