From time to time I wonder—even worry slightly—about the effect of my retirement idleness on my powers of cognition. Maybe that's too pompous a phrase—maybe I just mean, on my thought and memory. Yet, when I chanced upon a remark in a TED Talk about the retirement brain which mildly dissed working on puzzles, I mostly ignored it and continued to do my morning routine with word and jigsaw puzzles. Then I read a review of a new book about solving puzzles and decided to think more about puzzlers' brains.
The TED Ideas post by Cella Wright was an abbreviated overview of a TED Talk by gerontology researcher Ross Andel, director of the School of Aging Studies at the University of South Florida. He cites research linking retirement to "a decline in cognitive functioning" sometimes "double the rate of cognitive aging" and acknowledges it "does not apply to everyone." He discusses a twenty-year-long study of aging and cognition conducted in Australia where participants complete a number of tests that gauge memory, speed of thinking, verbal abilities and other cognitive skills. His research seemed to show that speed of processing ("a main indicator of the aging of the brain") declines with retirement, which "slows down information" and "leads to memory loss and disorientation." Because we don't use our brains as we did when we were working, we become "more susceptible to cognitive decline."
Andel thinks retirees need more "routine and individual sense of purpose." He urges anyone considering retirement to "find a new routine that's meaningful," one that provides a personal sense of purpose, such as "learning to play the hurdy-gurdy, mastering origami, bird-watching, [. . .] playing with grandkids." Andel deliberately avoids saying that "purpose is about intellectual engagement" and asserts that retirees "should not feel compelled to do (unless they like them) crossword puzzles and brain-teasers." Rather than "as a permanent holiday," he thinks it would be "more helpful to perceive [retirement] as a time of personal renaissance," a chance to "reinvest in things that truly matter to us."
Frankly, my own puzzling habit didn't seem like a personal renaissance. Then I discovered "Game Theory," Judith Newman's review of The Puzzler: One Man's Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life by A. J. Jacobs. The subtitle suggests a sweeping overview of puzzles ("From Crosswords to the Meaning of Life"? I suspect different levels of complication). Newman calls the book "a romp, both fun and funny," though, she claims, Jacobs believes "puzzles can save us. Far from a waste of time, they soothe, focus, excite; they can, Jacobs argues, 'make us better thinkers, more creative. more incisive, more persistent,' while giving us 'that dopamine rush of discovery.'" Jacobs asserts that puzzles "can nudge us to adopt the puzzle mind-set—a mind-set of ceaseless curiosity about everything in the world, from politics to science to human relationships—and a desire to find solutions."
He considers all kinds or puzzles: "Crosswords, anagrams, rebuses, jigsaws, mazes, chess problems, math and logic, ciphers/secret codes, visuals (think 'Where's Waldo?'), cryptics" and a good many more. Newman mentions Jacobs visiting "C.I.A. headquarters (to investigate Kryptos, the copper sculpture embedded with a secret message that continues to defy cryptanalysts)" and competing with his wife and three kids in the World National Jigsaw championships in Spain, representing the United States. She also gives attention to Adrian Fisher, who claims to be "the most prolific maze designer 'in the history of humankind'," creator of "a Beatles-themed maze in Liverpool, a maze in the passenger terminal of Singapore's Changi Airport, and one on the side of a building in Dubai, 'which shouldn't be attempted unless you're Spider-Man.'" She refers to Will Shortz, the NPR/New York Times editor, as someone "who is to puzzles what Kim Kardashian is to buttocks."
She opines: "The truth is, we're all puzzlers, whether we're trying to remember our passwords or losing sleep because we're staying up till 12:01a.m. to do Wordle—a simple word puzzle that ballooned from 90 daily players on Nov. 1 to 300,000 at the beginning of the year to millions now." She concludes with reference to "what Jacobs calls the true puzzle lover's ethos: 'We should look at a problem and figure out potential solutions instead of just wallowing in rage and doubling down on our biases.' With the dreadful puzzle we're finding our world in today, this just might be the answer."
I suspect that doing crosswords or jigsaw puzzles—or learning to play the hurdy-gurdy, mastering origami, or bird-watching—is a generally rewarding way to avoid concentrating on the present dreadful puzzle our world faces. We might imagine a solution but never have the power to resolve it. We'll have better luck with Wordle.
Newman, Judith. "Game Theory," The New York Times Book Review. (June 5, 2022): 52. Review of The Puzzler: One Man's Quest to Solve the Most Baffling Puzzles Ever, from Crosswords to Jigsaws to the Meaning of Life by A. J. Jacobs. New York: Crown, 2022.
Wright, Cella. "Think Retirement Is Smooth Sailing? A Look at Its Potential Effects on the Brain." TED Ideas, July 12, 2019. Summary of "Is retirement bad for your brain?" | Ross Andel | TEDxFulbrightCanberra"