Brain games for study breaks

As exams rapidly approach, individuals are often overwhelmed and struggle to keep their focus while studying. Research suggests that brain games can make for a more productive study break as these activities keep the mind active, while offering a comforting way to de-stress. Whether it be a crossword, a jigsaw puzzle, or sudoku, mind games have been known to improve memory, cognitive function, attention span, and other brain functions vital to student success. 

For most students, retaining complex information can be challenging. A study conducted at the University of Exeter and King’s College London found that participants who frequently played crossword and sudoku puzzles demonstrated sharper performances across several tasks. These tasks were specifically designed to assess memory, attention, and reasoning. The study also suggests that playing such games helps keep the brain younger as one ages, reducing the likelihood of later developing advanced stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. 

Additionally, students who often play brain games find that they help with focus, since their mind is working to find a solution in an allotted amount of time. While some like to save these puzzles for a relaxing study break, others choose to start or end their day with a brain game. For Corrina Greenler, U3 Arts, starting her morning with a crossword puzzle helps her productivity throughout the day. 

“I love how doing a crossword is something to keep my mind active but isn’t school work,”  Greenler said. “[It] gets me thinking and motivated [Once I finish one], I’m ready to work on my other tasks.” 

This satisfaction from solving a puzzle is a motivator to challenge oneself with these activities. Many individuals who partake in brain-stimulating games see this form of entertainment as exercise for the brain. A study published in the International Journal of Geritatic Psychiatry suggests that, in seniors, crosswords and other such puzzles strengthen the brain, almost like physical exercise does for the body. 

Focusing on a non-academic task for a set period of time allows students to take a break without letting their minds idle. Meredith Charney, U3 Arts, finds that doing crossword puzzles can help balance everyday stresses.

“I do the crossword almost every day,” Charney said. “I have a lot of anxiety, and when I’m doing a crossword, it diverts that mental energy elsewhere.” 

McGill psychology professor Dr. Richard Koestner connects brain games with the concept of flow as defined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihali. 

“[Flow is] associated with pursuing interesting and challenging activities where there is a specific goal and feedback,” Koestner said. “Games and puzzles […] are designed to produce the conditions that lead to flow.” 

In contrast to watching TV and surfing the internet, which provide minimal structure to divert our attention from our anxieties, brain games allow us to spend more time in flow.

“[Research supports the idea that] increasing the number of flow activities we do each day can greatly enhance our personal well-being,” Koestner said. “I think [brain games] are more likely to produce flow [than these activities, but] we have to keep increasing challenge and skill so that the activity continues to produce flow.” 

Since high stress levels can lead to numerous health concerns, it is important to find enjoyable and productive ways to relax the mind and body. A University of Toronto study suggests that giving the mind a break allows one to return to a task with more energy and a new perspective. The results found that effective relaxation techniques vary from person to person, but for many students, crosswords and other puzzles can be a worthy means both to de-stress and to challenge oneself. Referencing Mihaly Csikszentmihali, Koestner recommends that students challenge themselves through brain games in order to reap the mental benefits.

“[With any flow activity] we [should] set goals, monitor our performance, and [aim to] increase the challenge level so that we stay in the flow channel. Sometimes we have to increase our skills so that we can manage our challenges.”

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