Faculty friday| 2020-02-21 Berta Dóra Bella

The history of puzzles and their effect on brain function

In 2007, initiated by The Hungarian Puzzlers’ Association and the editors of Füles puzzle magazine, with the help of the Minister of Education and Culture, February 3rd (Füles magazine’s birthday) was declared to be the official day of the Hungarian puzzle solvers. They have been annually organizing puzzle solving competitions on this day for the interested parties ever since. The fact that this year there were 200 participants in the 3-hour event is a solid proof of its popularity. There are different types of puzzles: logical puzzles (e.g. Sudoku), language games, code breaking, visual puzzles, but the most common one is probably the crossword, of which we can also come across many different versions.


But where exactly did this brain-picking activity come from?

According to the English, they were the ones to come up with the first crossword in the 19th century. The crossword as we know it today made its debut in the US in the Christmas volume of New York World newspaper in 1913 – it was created by the editor, Arthur Wynne, who also came up with the name “crossword”. However, the smashing success came only in 1924, when the Simon & Schuster publishing company published the first crossword book that reached the population of the whole US in no time, from ocean liners through checkered fashion items to Broadway, where they even wrote a revue scene on this popular hobby.

The new game reached and conquered Europe as well, but it did not manage to impress everyone. This was obviously the case when the London Zoo announced that they are unwilling to give out any information in connection with gnus, emus and other animals with three letter names.

The crossword fever reached the Royal Palace as well. Once, the back then princess Elizabeth sent in the solution of a crossword puzzle on the official letter headed paper of Buckingham palace, bearing her official signature. This had surprised the editors so much that they even started doubting its authenticity and thought that it might be a joke. However, after contacting the Palace they were able to dispel all doubts – the Princess had solved the puzzle individually, without using any help, she’d sent in the solution herself and she even won the main prize.

Many celebrities were quite fond of the “checkered puzzles”, including:

Tristan Bernard, French writer, founder of the Crossword Academy. He claimed to appreciate certain well-put-together crosswords more than some of his novels.

Marlene Dietrich, German singer-actress, was also crazy for crosswords. Rumor has it that she always had some crosswords in her dressing room.

Jenő Heltai, Hungarian writer, was talented not only in the field of literature, but also in solving crosswords as well. So much so, that besides Hungarian, he was also unbeatable in solving crosswords in three other languages.

Thanks to Károly Kristóf, the checkered puzzle had made its appearance for the first time in Hungary on January 22, 1925 in the weekly newspaper Ma Este (Tonight). Even though the main prize for the first crossword was humble, later on this reached a whole new level when, for example, participants could win an apartment on Andrássy Street with the puzzle in Pesti Napló. However, those committed to crosswords were probably inspired more by amusement than by the main prize. The amount of the solutions sent in to Füles magazine when the prize was a color TV was the same as when they could win a Persian cat.

The crossword movement in Hungary is unique in the sense that they organize more than 20 competitions annually, one of which is non-stop, meaning that it goes on for 24 hours. Hungarians have won countless medals on international competitions as well. One of our most outstanding competitors is Pál Madarassy, who became world champion in 2007.

Crossword is the most widespread word puzzle in the world – it is published in countless languages, even in Braille. Even though various types of crosswords exist, they also have unique features within different countries:

In the Czech Republic you can write multiple letters into one box. In Poland they prefer having more black squares than white ones. In France and Romania, they prefer if the black boxes within one crossword are placed irregularly, because it suggests that the creator focused on the content rather than the visual. In Canada, because there are two official languages, the language of the word needed depends on the given word’s position. Italians have the most difficult task when solving crosswords – they themselves have to write in the numbers and mark the black boxes as well.

In Hungary the most popular version is the Scandinavian one, where the definitions are written into the boxes. The most specific characteristic of Hungarian crosswords is long solutions causing lines to take a curve and continue in a different direction.

While the older generations prefer solving crosswords on paper, youngsters are rather fond of online puzzle solving. A good puzzle, that is interesting, informative, striking and most importantly, not boring, is a compliment to its creator’s work. Moreover, solving crosswords is not only entertaining, but it also has a significant impact on our health.


Crosswords are the perfect mood boosters

It makes everyone happy when they finish a crossword, because this satisfaction causes dopamine to be released in the brain. Hence our mood is boosted.


They reduce the chances of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

Solving crosswords is not only fun, but it’s also healthy. This popular hobby, which also requires immersive intellectual work, helps prevent and delay age-associated “senility”. Researchers argue that for those who regularly engage in activities like solving crossword puzzles, it is less likely that the proteins responsible for Alzheimer’s disease will build up in their brain.


They reduce stress

Solving crosswords diverts attention from everyday issues, therefore it reduces anxiety.


They help improve verbal skills

Playing with words improves communication skills. According to a study, regular crossword-solvers use a richer and broader vocabulary and can express themselves more elaborately than those who don’t engage in such activity.


Last, but not least, solving crosswords is an important way to acquire knowledge

Different ways exist to keep our brain in good shape, but they don’t all have the same result. The British Exeter University and King’s College London launched a study in which they examined thousands of people over age 50. Results showed that the brain of puzzle solvers works faster, and they also have a better memory. Professor Keith Wesnes, one of the study’s authors arrived at the conclusion that solving crosswords has to be in connection with cognitive functions – since it boosts blood flow in certain brain areas, it can rejuvenate our brain by even 10 years. The research extended to prove that word and number-based puzzles give the same result.

Besides regular physical exercise, mental exercise is just as important in keeping ourselves youthful and healthy. The fact that we can do this while having fun solving crosswords is just the cherry on top.