‘Rewording the Brain’ – Can cryptic crosswords fight off dementia?

Kathryn Friedlander reviews David Astle’s fascinating guide to cryptic crosswords. Should we all consider taking up cryptic crossword solving, as the book suggests, to ‘improve our memory and boost the power and agility of our brain’?

Cover of David Astles' Book - 'Rewording the Mind'
Front cover

For the novice solver of cryptic crosswords there’s much to recommend this entertaining book – including the admirably clear explanation of a number of standard cryptic crossword clue types in Part Two (“The How-To”). Taken together with Part Three (“The WTF”), which contains a scaffolded series of graded crossword challenges, this is a sure-footed guide to techniques for would-be solvers.

But it’s the first part of the book (Part One: “The Why”) which particularly appealed to me as a seasoned solver of cryptics and a psychologist. Here, in this affectionate paean to the art of cruciverbalism, there’s a treasure-trove of genuinely interesting insights into why puzzlers love to puzzle – and what the brain is up to as we wrestle with this challenge.

The wittily subtitled sections comprise a breath-taking romp through related psychological, philosophical, linguistic and neuroscientific concepts such as insight moments, fast/slow thinking, incongruity resolution, mindfulness, generative grammar, semantic maps and memory:

  • AHA – The euphoria of eureka
  • TEMPO – Pouncing versus pacing
  • FOCUS – The endangered art of being present
  • MEMORY – Your brain as active archive
  • VOCABULARY – How porous is your thesaurus?
  • HAHA – Hip-hip for the hippocampus
  • PLAY – Survival of the funnest
  • DIS/CONNECT – Time to break and remake
  • TOGETHER – Thinking in harmony

While much of this information is already out there in the scholarly tomes of academia (in particular our own article on Penny-Dropping Moments in cryptic crosswords), this is an exhilarating and approachable lay-guide to some of the key research on insight puzzle solving in the field.

For example, in ‘AHA’, Astle introduces the reader to the matchstick maths problems, first introduced to the research world by Knoblich as a form of ‘insight problem’. This is our first introduction to ‘functional fixedness‘ – those habitual or stereotypical modes of thought which may result in mental blocks that impede creative problem-solving.

We meet this theme repeatedly in Part One – whether considering Compound Remote Associate puzzles in ‘TEMPO’ or the ‘prepared mind’ (Louis Pasteur, 1854) in ‘DIS/CONNECT’: the challenge in solving cryptics is that of keeping the mind primed to consider solutions other than that offered so readily by the clue’s red herring.

The Necker Cube illusion: which way is the cube facing?

Astle makes a particularly striking comparison between cryptic misdirection (consider the chicanery of APPLY = ‘EMPLOY’ and APPLY = ‘like an APPLE’) and the mind-trap of an unstable visual illusion such as the Necker Cube. As with the illusion:

“only one orientation can be perceived in any given instant, a fleeting reality quickly disrupted by the alternative, and vice versa” p.72

meaning that:

“Equipped with a new way of thinking, your brain is obliged to play a momentary tug-of-war with itself, trying to rationalise the mixed signals on offer” p.71

And there’s no question that solving cryptic crosswords gives your brain a good work-out. In our paper on crossword expertise, we suggested that cryptic crossword solving exercises a wide range of cognitive faculties, such as:

  • The general capacity to analyze, reason, problem-solve and think ‘on one’s feet’
  • A specific aptitude for cryptographic or mathematical thinking
  • The visuospatial ability to mentally manipulate algebraic components of wordplay ‘fodder’
  • The ability to pattern-match and, most specifically, complete word fragments provided by cross-checking letters
  • The ability to break free from familiar patterns of thought (particularly red herrings deliberately supplied by the setter) using new and unusual interpretations of clue components
  • The ability to retrieve words from long-term memory to match synonym definitions.

Certainly, this is a more extensive set of demands than those required by their US-style crossword cousins, which are essentially word retrieval tasks requiring an extensive vocabulary – much of it ‘crosswordese’.

Can puzzling protect against dementia?

But do cryptic crosswords actually protect the brain against dementia and age-related decline? Astle is an evangelical believer in the ‘use-it-or-lose-it’ argument and throughout the book strongly promotes the use of cryptics to enhance and retain our mental faculties.

Comparing the agile mental dexterity of cryptic puzzle-play with the art of juggling, Astle draws attention to an Oxford study which suggested that there might indeed be advantages in learning a new complex skill:

“We challenged half of the volunteers to learn to do something entirely new. After six weeks of juggling training, we saw changes in the white matter of this group compared to the others who had received no training … We chose juggling purely as a complex new skill for people to learn. But there is a ‘use it or lose it’ school of thought, in which any way of keeping the brain working is a good thing, such as going for a walk or doing a crossword.” (Dr Johansen-Berg, lead researcher)

From this, Astle goes on to argue that:

“Like the juggling study, the data surrounding the act of solving isn’t foolproof but it is optimistic, every sign suggesting the custom is nourishing the mind. And unlike juggling, ten times the research has been held in puzzle-play, with each paper confirming that the solver’s brain is a boosted brain, as nimble as an acrobat” – ‘SHOWTIME’, p.90.

In support of his claims, Astle quotes a range of puzzle-play studies – for example the studies of Henry Molaison (whose hippocampus was, famously, surgically removed), who was able to modify old memories with new information learned through crossword-solving. There’s also a nod towards recent studies at Exeter University/Kings College London, which reported:

“We found direct relationships between the frequency of word puzzle use and the speed and accuracy of performance on nine cognitive tasks assessing a range of aspects of function including attention, reasoning and memory. Performance was consistently better in those who reported engaging in puzzles, and generally improved incrementally with the frequency of puzzle use. For example, on test measures of grammatical reasoning speed and short-term memory accuracy, performing word puzzles was associated with an age-related reduction of around 10 years.”

Note, however, that the research team is considerably more cautious than Astle acknowledges in the book:

“We can’t yet say that crosswords give you a sharper brain – the next step is to assess whether encouraging people to start playing word games regularly could actually improve their brain function “

Unfortunately, parallel research by the University of Aberdeen, reported recently by the BBC, is not promising. This study concluded that those who started off early in life with higher intellectual abilities tended to engage more with puzzling; and that a higher level of puzzling did indeed seem to be associated with higher mental abilities later in life. But this mainly seems to be because puzzlers started with the advantage of a higher cognitive starting point, from which decline was then observed. The actual trajectory of decline was similar for both puzzlers and non-puzzlers.

Similarly disappointing results have been found in many other crossword studies over the years – for example those by Hambrick and Salthouse: there’s no strong evidence indicating anything other than a correlational relationship between crossword puzzling and better long-term mental health. So we can’t establish causality one way or another, or know whether there is an underlying driver common to both.

There have been similar difficulties in establishing the efficacy of brain-training programmes such as Lumosity. Indeed one paper notes that:

“In 2014, two groups of scientists published open letters on the efficacy of brain-training interventions, or “brain games,” for improving cognition. The first letter, a consensus statement from an international group of more than 70 scientists, claimed that brain games do not provide a scientifically grounded way to improve cognitive functioning or to stave off cognitive decline. Several months later, an international group of 133 scientists and practitioners countered that the literature is replete with demonstrations of the benefits of brain training for a wide variety of cognitive and everyday activities.” – Abstract

So what should we make of it all?

The jury is probably still out on the usefulness of cryptic crosswords in staving off age-related decline in terms of ‘brain-training’. The evidence is certainly nowhere near as strong as Astle claims in his book; but a number of studies (for example Pillai and colleagues, and Almond and Morrison) have reported some intriguing finds for some samples. We might also comfort ourselves with the thought that most of the ‘crossword’ studies carried out to date were not explicitly using cryptic crosswords, leading to the suspicion that many of the participants (and certainly those in the US) would have been solving straight-definition coffee-break type grids: a quite different challenge!

Board Game Cafes encourage social interaction

One further point: in the chapter ‘TOGETHER’ Astle extols the practice of solving cryptics in company to stave off age-related decline, reporting on a visit to Australia’s U3A. Here he is on much firmer ground: a recent report by the AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health suggests that positive relationships, purpose in life, engaging in activities you enjoy and social interaction are all key elements in ageing well.

In summary … despite the hype over brain-training, this is an intriguing and engaging book. It is written with passion, but with Astle’s exquisitely tuned ear for language, puns and comedic opportunities it remains readable and (on occasion) laugh-out-loud funny.

Rewording the Brain’ will appeal to a wide range of solvers from the novice to the expert. Each section is self-standing and can be consulted independently.

David Astle’s bio (from publisher’s website): As crossword maker in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, as well as Wordplay columnist with ‘Spectrum’, David Astle is a full-time word nerd. He’s the author of Wordburger – a quick-snack guide to cryptic crosswords for kids or rookies in general, as well as the time-travelling mind-trip called Riddledom. His other wordy hits include Cluetopia, plus the ultimate manual-cum-memoir, Puzzled. To complete the set are the two pocketbooks: Puzzles & Words – and Puzzles & Words 2. David has a regular column Wordwit in the Saturday SMH, Age and Canberra Times and has a weekly slot on Radio National’s Sunday Extra with Jonathan Green. He is an ambassador for Dementia Australia.

‘Rewording the Brain’ was published in October 2018 by Allen & Unwin (Australia). 314 pages, ISBN 9781760295486.

Disclaimer: this review was of a complimentary copy kindly supplied by the author. Dr Friedlander and Dr Fine supplied some material relating to their cryptic crossword study reported in the book.

Images: Book cover, from publisher’s website; Man in thought:
https://www.maxpixel.net/Face-White-Thinking-Work-Man-Black-Eyes-Thinking-272677; Necker Cube from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Necker%27s_cube.svg; Juggling – https://www.flickr.com/photos/qwrrty/5877478960; Board Game Cafe – https://www.flickr.com/photos/gamesforchange/17941636160

5 thoughts on “‘Rewording the Brain’ – Can cryptic crosswords fight off dementia?

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