A few days ago my wife Diane spontaneously bought a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle that she saw at the grocery store. We have been working on it ever since. In the United States more people enjoy jigsaw puzzles than any other table game. The puzzle market is growing in leaps and bounds and is expected to reach $730 million by 2024, according to MarketWatch.

A survey conducted last year showed that nearly half of American adults try their hand at solving jigsaw puzzles at least once a year. About one in five Americans report they worked on jigsaw puzzles either monthly, weekly or daily. The profile of the typical avid jigsaw puzzler surprisingly tended to be a young adult male, who has children living at home.

The COVID-19 pandemic has, of course, greatly increased interest in things like jigsaw puzzles. With so many people staying close to home, sales have soared and manufacturers have had trouble keeping merchandise on the shelves.

Carol Glazer, president of Ceaco, one of America’s largest producers of jigsaw puzzles, in April said, “Around the second week of March, we notice sales… were up 300% over the same week the previous year. And we said, How can you prepare for something like this?”

Like many pandemic activities, jigsaw puzzles help keep people busy and distracted while stuck at home with time on their hands. Toy industry consultant Chris Byrne says, “It really takes your focus off of whatever’s going on, because you’re trying to find that peak of the barn or that piece of sky or this element of cloud.” And such a change in attention can be healthy in times like these.

As a young child I loved playing with those puzzles that came with a cardboard frame. My favorite puzzle was shaped like a colorful map of the United States, with each piece being a different state. There was usually a small picture on each piece representing that particular state. I can remember that Illinois (where I lived) had an ear of corn, Florida had an alligator, and New York had the Statue of Liberty.

The very first jigsaw puzzle may well have been a map. In 1767 English mapmaker John Spilsbury glued one of his maps to a sheet of hardwood and cut it into a number of pieces. The public was challenged to put it back together and it soon became a popular educational aid. Such puzzles were originally called “dissected maps.”

Back when I was administering intelligence tests, one of the subtests on a popular IQ test involved assembling small cardboard puzzles. These puzzles represented familiar animals or other common objects. This test was timed and you got bonus points for doing them quickly. The administrator wasn’t allowed to tell the test-taker what the object was, as they struggled to put it together. This subtest, however, didn’t correlate very highly with overall IQ and it was sometimes referred to as a “splinter skill.” Occasionally someone would score extremely high on this task. This was typically interpreted as having excellent visual-motor planning and fine motor skills. I wondered if these folks were especially good at making things or at mechanical work, but I never read any research supporting that conclusion.

Author and puzzle aficionado A.J. Jacobs says, “Puzzles are a very soothing and joyous way to spend a couple of hours.

They’re physical, tactile pieces and you get an endorphin rush when pieces snap into place.” My wife Diane says that their appeal is because they can provide “a thousand little victories.”

Many people believe that working jigsaw has much in common with self-hypnosis or meditation. Jacobs says, “Some jigsaw friends of mine talk about how time just melts away” and “You feel like you’ve been working on a puzzle for five minutes, but in reality three hours have passed. That can be helpful when you’re stuck inside for two months.”

Regularly working on jigsaw puzzles has been associated with improvement in memory, cognitive function and problem-solving skills, as well as hand-eye coordination. The famous 1995 MacArthur studies of aging found that older people who engage with jigsaw puzzles have a better quality of life and even longer life expectancies. They have a reduced chance of developing memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s Disease.

Researchers speculate that this is most likely because the task requires the simultaneous use of both sides of the brain. The left hemisphere is the analytical side and is used to logically sort and sequentially assembly pieces. The right hemisphere is the creative side and it works intuitively to perceive patterns and connections.

It has also been found that even just the successful placement of one puzzle piece (Washington Post reporter Galadriel Watson calls it a “eureka moment”) elicits the production of dopamine.

This is a brain chemical that not only brings pleasure but also increases one’s capacity for learning and memory.

Working jigsaw puzzles also improves physical health by reducing heart rate, blood pressure, and the production of stress hormones. It reduces anxiety and can even improve the quality of sleep. Jigsaw puzzles also have less calories than other COVID-19 activities such as baking banana bread.

From a psychological perspective, puzzles represent a task with a clear purpose and goal. The activity offers people a sense of control and it provides closure. It results in a sense of relief and accomplishment, as we all take pride in completing a complex task. Marcel Danesi from the University of Toronto says, “Puzzles give psychological order to the chaos we feel. When you come out of it, when you’ve solved the puzzle, then life seems to work better.”

Experts have offered a number of tips for novice puzzlers, such as tackling the edges first and sorting all the other pieces by color and shape. It can be helpful to identify pieces that have something distinguishing about them, like a distinct image, text or unique color.

After completing the edge, it’s best to work on small sections, placing them approximately where they would be in the finished puzzle. Finally, don’t give up and when you get tired or frustrated take a break. A fresh look later is often rewarding and gratifying.

The puzzle that Diane bought has a Wizard of Oz theme. I’ve been trying to assembly Dorothy’s farm house that fell on the Wicked Witch of the East. I can’t begin to tell you how happy I was when I finally found the piece with witch’s feet wearing the magic slippers, sticking out from underneath the house. Next, the Emerald City!!

Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Jeffersonville and is the CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems. He can be reached at tstawar@gmail.com.

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