Like many families around the world, ours has rediscovered over the past month the joys and challenges of the jigsaw puzzle. More or less confined to our home in Israel amid the coronavirus pandemic, we take for granted that these fun, frustrating diversions have sharpened our mental abilities and laid bare certain truths about our behavior, and recent studies bear this out.
Jigsaw puzzles have captured my attention since toddlerhood. Family trips and rainy weekends alike saw my siblings, parents, and me huddled over 500-piece photographs of German castles, Japanese temples, and Life Savers compilations. As Sabbath-observing Orthodox Jews, we spent many a Saturday afternoon completing these maddening masterpieces.
When my wife and I began dating, I quickly concluded she was “the one,” at least in part owing to the patience, cleverness, and visual acuity she deployed in completing jigsaw versions of Hawaiian waterfalls and Cape Cod summer homes. Years later in San Diego, when we wandered for the first time into the first home we would ever buy, we bonded with the sellers over the many thousand-piecers of national parks and kittens they’d conquered and proudly mounted on their — and eventually our — walls.
When our family moved to Israel, having fed our young children a steady diet of wooden puzzles, followed by more difficult ones depicting the birthplaces of the American presidents, the Seven Wonders of the World, and the heroes of “Star Wars,” we met another family with a serious puzzle obsession. We weren’t surprised to learn that their children, now fully grown, had been inducted into some of the Israel Defense Forces’ most elite intelligence units.
But now, with more than 1 billion people across the globe essentially locked down and homebound, the popularity of jigsaw puzzles has soared to levels not seen since the Great Depression. German puzzle-maker Ravensburger, one of the largest in the world, reported in March that its sales had skyrocketed 370 percent over the same period last year. Its North American CEO told CNBC it has sold 20 puzzles per minute during 2020.
VentureBeat revealed, “[D]uring the week ending March 21, sales of board games, card games, and puzzles grew 228% from the previous week.” The Wall Street Journal reported that puzzles were searched more frequently on Amazon in March than cleaning supplies.
This surge is unsurprising, given that many people otherwise find themselves even more absorbed than usual in their screens, whether through distance-learning classes, video workouts, mindless social-media scrolling, YouTubing, and watching movies. Jigsaw puzzles present a healthy respite from electronics fatigue, an analog, tangible break from an increasingly virtual world.
Puzzles Stretch Our Minds
Indeed, in 2017, a team of German psychologists and neurobiologists surveyed the relevant literature and found that completing jigsaw puzzles can enhance cognitive abilities and help stave off Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. Puzzle-solving, they reckon, involves skills critical to sharp cognitive functioning, including visual perception, mental rotation, cognitive speed, visual scanning, perceptual reasoning, and memory, among others.
The journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience published the results of experimentation on a randomized group of 100 people 50-years-old and older completing, over the course of 30 days, a series of 250- to 1,500-piece puzzles — one of the most comprehensive analyses of the intellectual benefits of puzzles to date. They confirmed that jigsaw puzzle-solving ability and experience were both strongly associated with the various cognitive skills identified in the literature. Earlier studies found that puzzles stave off the brain plaques that cause Alzheimer’s and that preschoolers benefit cognitively from completing them.
Moreover, a 2019 Ipsos survey commissioned by Ravensburger found that while 42 percent of puzzle-doers complete them as a “brain booster,” 59 percent of puzzlers do so to relax, and 34 percent to connect with others. As Ravensburger states on its #AtHomeWithRavensburger homepage, jigsaw puzzles inject “variety and inspiration into this new, unfamiliar everyday family life.”
Puzzles Teach Us Something About Ourselves
In addition to providing these cognitive and emotional benefits, jigsaws also reveal patterns of human behavior. Take streakiness, for example. Every now and again when I’m working on a jigsaw puzzle, I catch fire.
Every piece I successfully place into the 1,000-piece frame is rapidly followed by another, and another, and yet another. I can’t be stopped. I rip pieces out of my kids’ and wife’s hands in a frenzy of puzzle completion — and they forgive me because the same hot streak can take hold of them, too, at any point.
I also see where pieces fit into areas of the puzzle others are working on, hand them those pieces, and inform them with determination and certainty that they will fit. I’m almost always correct. That is, until one or two pieces in a row don’t fit, at which point I revert to my baseline puzzle-solving ability.
This streakiness is surely familiar to all. In his fascinating new book “The Hot Hand: The Mystery and Science of Streaks,” Wall Street Journal sports reporter Ben Cohen traces the fall and rise of the “hot hand theory,” according to which consistent success in a given field itself breeds further success.
The paradigmatic instance of the hot hand involves streaky basketball shooters who make several consecutive baskets then simply cannot miss, such as Golden State Warriors’ star Stephen Curry, who on Feb. 27, 2013, erupted for 54 points against the New York Knicks. In that game, he sunk a jaw-dropping 85 percent of his three-point shots. This same streakiness can be found among famous playwrights, attorneys, stock-pickers, directors, and chefs.
Is Streakiness All in Our Heads?
For more than four decades, social scientists have explored: Is a player who sinks one bucket actually more likely to bury the next shot he takes? The dominant academic approach, developed initially by famed cognitive psychologist Amos Tversky, held that not only was there no such thing as the hot hand, but its prevalence in the face of contrary evidence only highlights the fundamentally flawed human tendency to insist upon seeing invisible patterns in data. Tversky and company reached their conclusions by poring over mountains of early 1980s data involving the Boston Celtics and other teams.
But as Cohen demonstrates, Tversky’s studies were flawed, and when measured properly, as it was in a set of experiments in the 2010s, a detectable albeit modest hot-hand effect emerges in basketball. These revisionist experiments, carried out by a newer generation of data scientists, even won the endorsement of Tversky’s Nobel Prize-winning compadre, the illustrious psychologist Daniel Kahneman. “I think clearly Tversky et al. were wrong,” Kahneman told a Columbia University audience in 2015. “Their test was biased, and there is a hot hand.”
Cohen characterizes this phenomenon as an “elevated state of ability in which you briefly feel superhuman.” Anyone who gets on a hot puzzle-solving streak can relate to it.
A Picture of Personality Emerges
Over the course of our family puzzle-solving, I’ve seen personality types emerge among my family members, including a certain rascally tendency of my children, borrowed from my own childhood, to secretly purloin a piece or two so they can earn credit for officially completing the puzzle.
Squabbling aside, our family puzzling reinforces the closeness and teamwork the virus has forced upon us, a welcome and unifying break from the dizzying newsfeed destroying our serenity. Interestingly, the puzzle popularity surge appears to predate the pandemic. Ravensburger’s CEO told VentureBeat, “[W]hat we’ve seen in the last couple of years is that consumers want to disconnect from the being on a screen all the time and feel the need for a digital detox.”
Whether the jigsaw craze will outlast the pandemic remains to be seen. But given what puzzles contribute to our mental abilities and how we understand them, let’s hope it does.