Puzzle Power! Mindstretch

The most important capacity we possess that separates us from our peers and competitors is our ability to think.  The way we express that thinking often says volumes about us from the first sentence on.  Not only are we judged immediately by the way we communicate, people inevitably start drawing conclusions about our thinking aptitude.  It stands to reason, then, that the better our thinking skills, the better chance we stand to be successful.  This naturally prompts the question, “Is there anything we can do to increase or enhance our thinking skills and mental flexibility?”

The answer is yes, there is.  Recent findings in the field of neuroscience and cognition conclusively show that new, more powerful brain connections can be created with “mind-stretching” activities.  And what might those be?  Interestingly, some of the strongest evidence finds games and puzzles at the top of the list.

One of the best examples of this can be found in Minnesota with the nuns of Mankato, many of whom are now in their eighties and nineties.  These remarkable women, featured in Time Magazine, are energetic, bright, and in excellent physical condition. They follow a rigorous routine of both mental and physical exercise.  Two of their favorite activities they credit for their mental acuity are games and puzzles.  Not only have they slowed down the aging process, but they keep adding to their mental acumen and flexibility.

The ongoing research in the cognition field by notable scientists such as Drs. Denise Park, Fred Gage, Jeffrey Macklis, and John Ratey points clearly to the power of actively exercising your brain in much the same manner as we work out physically: fun challenges from different approaches.

“Brain cells actually thicken when you solve puzzles and play games.”
-Gene Cohen, Former Director
National Institute of Mental Health Center on Aging

The idea of solving puzzles to increase your mental abilities is not a new concept—and   it has been taken seriously by several heavyweight thinkers.  For example, Charles Sanders Peirce, considered by many to be one of America’s great philosophers and mathematicians, was convinced that insufficient teaching methods used in schools might end up categorizing some bright children as poor students.  His solution was to introduce puzzles into the curriculum.  He filled three notebooks with novel ways of using puzzles, games, and toys to introduce various concepts.  He often asked teachers to let him instruct a group of youngsters who detested mathematics and seemed incapable of learning it.  In one case, two of those students went on to lead their school as the best mathematicians—after a mere ten lessons.

” A good math puzzle, paradox, or magic trick can stimulate a child’s imagination much faster than a practical application  . . .  and if the game is chosen carefully, it can lead almost effortlessly into significant mathematical ideas.”
– Martin Gardner

“In a recent study it was found that adults with hobbies that exercise their brains—such as reading, puzzles, and games such as chess—are 2.5 times less likely to have Alzheimer’s disease.”
-Dr. Robert P. Friedland, Associate Professor Neurology
Case Western Reserve University, School of Medicine

Many researchers now believe that education is less important in maintaining a healthy brain than the habit of staying mentally active as you age. A 2003 study reported an association between frequent participation in cognitively stimulating activities ( such as reading, doing puzzles, visiting museums ) and a reduced risk for Alzheimers.

Dr. John Ratey’s book, A User’s Guide to the Brain, offers compelling evidence supporting the efficacy of using puzzles and games to boost mental flexibility.  He writes, “Activities that challenge your brain actually expand the number and strength of neural connections devoted to the skill.”  He goes on to say, “We always have the ability to remodel our brains.  To change the wiring in one skill, you must engage in some activity that is unfamiliar–novel to you but related to that skill–because simply repeating the same activity only maintains already established connections.  To bolster his creative circuitry, Albert Einstein played the violin.  Winston Churchill painted landscapes.  You can try puzzles to strengthen connections involved with spatial skills….”

Progressive organizations are now recognizing the benefits of a workforce of critical and creative thinkers.  Author and lecturer Michael Michalko’s best-selling book, Thinkertoys, has been labeled “the business book of the nineties.”  What sets it apart from other business books?  It is the use of Michalko’s Thinkertoys—activities in puzzle formats that steer the brain into discovering new ideas, offering alternative approaches to decision making, and increasing one’s creativity.

Such corporations as AT&T, PricewaterhouseCoopers, IBM, United Airlines, Chevron, Intel, and Liberty Mutual now hold problem-solving sessions utilizing puzzles of all varieties: logic, spatial/visual, word puzzles, and board games.  These companies realize the importance of the skills and tools these puzzles bring, by engaging participants in rigorous, thought-provoking activities.

More than ever, America’s corporations are demanding better critical and creative thinkers.  Having impressive degrees from prestigious universities is not the main prerequisite for success as it once was.  Thinking skills are.  Winston Churchill was on the money with his famous quote, “All the great empires of the future will be empires of the mind.”

And recent research continues to support the thesis that “exercising the brain” is vital to maintaining mental functions at a high level.  Three examples:

  • Neuropsychologist Elkhonon Goldberg, author of The Wisdom of Paradox. has developed a mental fitness program for his aging patients, with computer puzzles for strengthening the mind’s acuity and “muscles”—with positive results.
  • In his book, Train Your Brain, Japanese neurologist Ryuta Kawashima says the key to staving off negative mental effects of aging is a daily five-minute regimen of reading aloud and doing simple math problems.  The idea is to “work out the brain much like we work out the rest of our bodies.”
  • Subjects in a UCLA study showed substantially improved metabolic changes in the brain area linked to working memory when they made four simple lifestyle changes:
    1. Eating five small meals rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, whole grains, and antioxidants
    2. Brisk walks
    3. Stretching and relaxation exercises to counter stress
    4. Brainteasers and games

In summary, you will find that as you solve puzzles, your mind’s flexibility will indeed improve.  And that the more you do, the better problem solver you will become.  And remember this essential fact: your overall success in life will depend in large measure on your ability to think creatively in dealing with the wide-ranging problems that lie in store for each of us—every day!

Author Terry Stickels is an internationally acclaimed creator of puzzles and speaker on mental flexibility.  His work appears in papers and magazine worldwide and he has authored 27 books.  For more information, he can be reached at his website:  TerryStickels.com or 817-542-0102.

Below are some tips and thoughts on thinking you may enjoy  . . .   make it part of your Thinker’s Tool Kit.

Addendum: Tips and Quotes

Tip: Keep learning and thinking in as many different areas as possible.  Make it a point to read an article on a topic you’ve previously had no interest in…exercising new connections for the mind.

Quote: “As with our muscles, we can strengthen our neural pathways with brain exercise, or we can let them wither.  The principle is the same: Use it or lose it.”
-Dr. John Ratey
From A User’s Guide to the Brain

Tip: Solutions can often be reached just as easily by eliminating extraneous choices.

Quote: “It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however (apparently) impossible, must be the truth.”
Sherlock Holmes

Characteristic of Great Thinkers:
Great thinkers are always looking for the next mental challenge, even if it means repeated failures. They have an ability to let criticism and failures fall off their backs.

Quote: “I think and think for months and years.  Ninety-nine times the conclusion is false, the hundredth time I am right.”
Albert Einstein

Characteristic of Great Thinkers:
It’s not a coincidence that clever minds also seem to have a quick wit.  It seems high level thinkers, from scientists to comedians, are able to generate a different perspective on things that can result in some hilarious humor.  Don’t take yourself so seriously that you can’t laugh at your own expense now and then.  The legendary math and science writer, Martin Gardner, writes, “Psychologists are not sure, but studies of creative thinking suggest some sort of relationship between (mental agility) and humor.”

Quote: “I would never join a club that would have me as a member.”
Groucho Marx

Characteristic of Great Thinkers:
Many, if not most, great thinkers have taken their time in arriving at solutions.  In our fast-paced world, you may want to grant more leeway to those who take a little longer to arrive at a solution that affects you.  It may pay big rewards.

Quote: “The strongest of all warriors are these two—time and patience.”
Leo Tolstoy

Tip: Here are some ways top-notch problem solvers look at a new mental challenge:  Turn the problem inside out, upside down, and sideways. Spin, twist, stretch, and break it down. Play with it (both literally and figuratively).  Put the problem into different frames of reference to view it.

Quote: “Innovation comes from creative destruction.”
Yoshihisa Tabuci, CEO
Normura Securities

Characteristic of Great Thinkers:
When closing in on a solution, keep your emotions and personal prejudices out of it—and check your ego at the front door.

If the solution requires an emotional component, the proper weighting of that can be assigned at the end of the solution process.  Work to keep an open mind.

Quote: “The most characteristic feature of stupidity is not the ability to think, or lack of knowledge, but the certainty with which ideas are held.”
Dr. Edward deBono

Tip: Make a written legend of the data, facts, and information you are given.  Put it into some semblance or order that is easy for you to manipulate.  The mere act of writing or typing can often trigger the mind into action.

Quote: “The best way to have consequential thoughts is to write them down.”
E.B. White

Tip: When everything fails in arriving at a solution, try one or all of the following:
1.    Get completely away from the problem temporarily.
2.    Talk it out with someone else (it worked for Sherlock).
3.    Go for a long walk.

In regard to Tip #3, there are several stories of great thinkers having that AHA! moment during a long walk (physicists Einstein and Penrose being two).

The brain seems to be able to subconsciously process problem information in a more relaxed manner while engaged in another activity.

As a side note, the stories of “walkers” have two interesting features to them: most of the walking was done at night and alone.

Quote: “The creative process cannot be summoned at will or even cajoled by sacrificial offering.  Indeed, it seems to occur most readily when the (logical) mind is replaced, and the imagination is roaming freely.”
Morris Kline, Scientific American

Tip: Unless you are a columnist or television commentator, leave cynicism alone.  However, healthy, respectful skepticism is a must for growth and success.  In business, for example, if a proposition is not well grounded and supported by logic and evidence, be skeptical…and be ready to seek out new approaches.

Quote: “In order to seek truth, it is necessary once in a course of our life to doubt as far as possible all things.”
Rene Descartes

Characteristic of Great Thinkers:
They are never content with just solving the current problem at hand.  They mentally keep creating new alternatives, and are constantly asking the question “what if”?  They have an insatiable desire to always go to the next level.

Quote: “Opportunity does not come to those who wait.  It is captured by those who attack.”
General Douglas McArthur

Tip: Don’t let technology be a roadblock in your thinking pursuits.  Brainpower and flexibility are ultimately your best tools.  Remember that Einstein’s “technology” was pencil on paper.

Quote: “You already possess everything necessary to become great.”
Crow Indian Proverb

Tip: After you’ve reached a solution, always plug your answer back into the problem to see if it fits all the parameters you were asked to consider. Then put different solutions back into the problem…for checks and balances.  You may find more than one answer.

If you are having difficulty arriving at any solution, try a cross section of arbitrary solutions.  That may help to narrow the range of possibilities.

Quote: “The most erroneous stories are those we think we know best—and therefore never scrutinize or question.”
Stephen Jay Gould

Characteristic of Great Thinkers:
Great thinkers prefer to do their most serious thinking alone.  This may seem at odds in the business world, where committees, boards, and teams are prevalent and encouraged.  The smart organization realizes there is a way to accommodate both situations with great advantage to their strategic initiatives.

Quote: “My idea of a board meeting is when I see my face in the mirror when I shave.”
Warren Buffett

Characteristic of Great Thinkers:
Sometimes, people with great minds are seen as unreasonable.  They have thought out a situation through more levels than their associates, causing those around them to draw inaccurate conclusions about them and their solutions.  So be it.  To them I say: Keep thinking and forging ahead of the pack!

Quote: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world.  The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.  Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
George Bernard Shaw

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