Words on the brain

There's something to be said for crossword puzzles. According to research, they're supposed to be good for your brain. Especially older brains.

Reading, painting, jigsaw puzzles are activities that require us to use several parts of our brain. And all the time I thought these were just fun.

Apparently, figuring out a crossword puzzle requires both logic and general knowledge.

I would agree with one researcher who said that sometimes that "general knowledge" can be trivial or esoteric. Like, 11 down: "The winner of the men's collegiate indoor ring-toss championship tournament held in Peoria in 1927." Should I know that? How have I managed to get by for so long without knowing that?

This kind of information definitely qualifies as trivia. Trivial Pursuit not withstanding, who pursues trivia? It accumulates on its own, sticking to your memory like burs that attach themselves to your clothes during a walk through the countryside and that show up even after you've done the laundry.

Insignificant data is like that. It hangs around in your mind, often displacing important stuff like the eight-times table, your PIN number and the date of your wedding anniversary.

More and more I am finding product names, sports minutia and pop culture references cropping up in the across and down clues masquerading as "general knowledge." What part of your brain needs to know "The name of a TV game-show host?"

And there are what I call "crossword puzzle words" that I hardly ever encounter except in crossword puzzles: adit, epee, ogee, ewer, etc. But once in a while I am pleasantly delighted by the use of a word I don't hear very often in everyday speech. Like "don," for "wearing clothes."

So, if you want to have a healthy brain — and who doesn't — then you need to use it in challenging ways. And crossword puzzles weigh in favorably on almost every list of things to do to get those tiny grey cells atwitter.

Admittedly, I have not challenged my greys with the Sunday New York Times crossword, the Olympics of word bending. I'm still back in the intramurals. I use the ones in our local papers, usually while I'm sitting at the breakfast table, still in my pajamas and with my brain-boggling day ahead of me.

I prefer to do the puzzles in pen. There's a finality to that. No erasing. Sure, I get words wrong. But I just write over them and keep moving on.

If I get stuck, I pull out my crossword dictionary which is one of my favorite books. I'd probably want to have it by my side if I were ever to be stranded on a desert island. Not to do crossword puzzles. But to use as a thesaurus as I wrote. Of course I'd be taking several boxes of blank sheets of paper and pencils. I'd figure out the food thing later.

But if I were to be stuck alone on an island with no crossword, Sudoku or jigsaw puzzles, I'd also not have the opportunity to engage in another brain-enhancing pastime: chatting with a friend or neighbor.

University of Michigan psychologist Dr. Oscar Ybarra believes that a few minutes of talking, face to face or by phone, boosts intellectual performance (including memory) as much as doing Sudoku or crossword puzzles.

"There's a widespread belief in this culture that the way to maintain your sharpness is to do technical and intellectual activities," Ybarra said on a Web site about brains and puzzles.

"But this study suggests an alternative to Sudoku or crosswords could be simply talking to one another. When people interact with others, basic processes such as working memory, speed of processing and verbal knowledge come into play.

"But social interaction also entails responding to others with our vision, hearing, touch and even smell. It is hard to conceive of a math problem or a novel affecting us in all these ways."

So the next time I sit down to figure out something profound like, 5 across: "The name of a popular cookie," I'll look up from the paper and ask my wife. We'll both be the wiser for it.

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