What if I told you that crossword puzzles have a hidden beauty all their own? And that they can help us glean some insights into human nature? Yes, that standard grid of black and white squares has a life all its own that will leave you appreciating another wonderful corner of the world.
For many, the crossword puzzle holds a place of ubiquity. Whether we merely see it while thumbing through the paper or an inflight magazine, or have fond memories of doing the crossword with a grandparent, it’s one of those things that is, for most, just around.
So why, in a place dedicated to proving “it’s still an amazing world” would we bring up crossword puzzles? Well because, like so many things when you look a little bit further, a mundane crossword has a complex life all its own. And the appeal that these fabulous word puzzles have had on us for over 100 years speaks to some of the wonderful quirks of human nature.
Why do we puzzle?
Cruciverbalist isn’t a word that tends to come up much. Unless of course, you’re looking for a 14 letter word for, “gridded puzzle builder” in your Sunday crossword. These masters of puzzle making create the puzzles that, for many people (myself included) consume hours of our lives.
So why do we puzzle? Why on Earth would any of us find joy or interest in something that frustrates and challenges us?
Think about it, a good puzzle, whether it’s the crossword, sudoku, or jigsaw, all have to sit on the razor edge of being just hard enough to stump us on occasion, but just easy enough that we can feel that little sense of accomplishment when we do solve the problem. It is this dance of difficulty and triumph that makes any game or puzzle worth spending time on.
Let’s dive into what makes a great crossword. Have you ever noticed it’s beautiful symmetry? The themes that run through them? The tricks of wordplay? That dance of challenge to triumph? If the answer to any of these questions is a “no” then we’ve got something for you that will help you build an entirely new appreciation, perhaps even an infatuation, with the crossword puzzle.
WIRED‘s great series, WIRED Masterminds, walks us through the process of building a crossword with New York Times crossword puzzle maker David Kwong. Along the way, a bit of light is shone on the many hidden corners of crossword puzzle construction.
Now, I promise if you stick around to the end you’ll be in for a wonderful surprise. One that left Sam and I staying 45 minutes late at the office and leaving feeling mighty accomplished!
I never say this, but if you want the answer to the surprise he mentioned at the end, go check out the comments on the YouTube video!
If you’re curious to learn more about magician and cruciverbalist David Kwong, please visit his website, watch his two TED Talks (Two nerdy obsessions meet — and it’s magic, and The science of illusion) and give him a follow on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram!
“A good puzzle makes us feel smart.”
There’s something addicting about those “ah-ha” moments. When, suddenly, everything falls into place and the answer emerges before our eyes. Crossword puzzles allow us to feel those little moments of triumph over and over again. We really love those moments of success.
Now, there is a lot of debate over why the human brain likes a puzzle. Some research suggests that solving puzzles ties into the same reward systems that drive our basic instincts for survival like reproducing and food. Others speculate that our rush of excitement and the “ah-ha” moment is tied to the joy we get from finding out new information. Each clue on a crossword is its own little secret to be discovered 2. Like the odd joy that we get from finding ourselves 15 pages deep on a Wikipedia binge about fruit evolution. Or, watching a video here, and then spending 45 minutes solving puzzles after work.
Now, are crosswords really helping you defy aging?
You may have heard the hype before that doing a puzzle a day will keep your brain young. Well, there’s still a lot of research to be done here. Generally, the research says that puzzles won’t ward away diseases like Alzheimer’s 3. Though there is some evidence to suggest that doing crossword puzzles (among other activities) could slow the impacts of aging on memory and cognitive decline 4!
So, there you have it, a peek behind the curtain of puzzle making. As well as little more insight into why we love puzzles so much, and some myth-busting on aging. Who knew the crossword puzzle could teach you more than just a 4 letter word for “On the safe side, at sea”. Which, by the way, is ALEE.
Stay beautiful & keep laughing!
Looking for a few more “ah-ha” moments?
If you’re looking to spark your curiosity, I suggest jumping over to our collection of articles about culture! There you’ll find an exploration of culture from the broad to the barely noticed to get lost in.
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- “How to Create a Crossword Puzzle | WIRED.” YouTube, WIRED, 10 Dec. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=aAqQnXHd7qk. Accessed 30 Jan. 2019. ↩
- Kurzban, Rob. “Why Is Solving Crossword Puzzles Fun?” Evolutionary Psychology Blog, U Penn, 4 Jan. 2011, web.sas.upenn.edu/kurzbanepblog/2011/01/04/why-is-solving-crossword-puzzles-fun/. Accessed 30 Jan. 2019. ↩
- Talk of the Nation. “Solving Puzzles Satisfies The Nimble Brain.” NPR, NPR, 8 Dec. 2010, www.npr.org/2010/12/08/131909788/solving-puzzles-satisfies-the-nimble-brain. Accessed 30 Jan. 2019. ↩
- Danesi, Marcel. “Puzzles and the Brain.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 24 Apr. 2009, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brain-workout/200904/puzzles-and-the-brain. Accessed 30 Jan. 2019. ↩