Crossword Puzzles for Brain Fitness: Fact or Fiction?

Crossword Puzzles feature imageDo you reserve your Saturday afternoons for the brain fitness promised by crossword puzzles?

If not, congratulations. That could be a wise decision.

But for over 50 million people, crossword puzzles are a part of their daily lives.

And they think it’s helping them.

Unfortunately, that’s not necessary true.

In fact, there’s a pernicious myth out there.

One that is generally assumed by far too many people who hope, wish and pray that doing word puzzles regularly can help keep your brain young and active.

Many people also believe that the health benefits of crossword puzzles can even keep Alzheimer’s or dementia at bay.

The question is…

Why Do People Believe These Crazy Things About Crossword Puzzles?


Here’s one reason:

Many consider crossword puzzles to be the pastime of the intelligent and knowledgeable people – a connection that we are only too happy to have.

More importantly?

Playing word games may legitimately improve your vocabulary.

Then again, so will developing your own mind as the perfect vocabulary builder (our focus on this YouTube playlist):

So, ultimately…

The idea that crossword puzzles will develop your memory is true enough.

For some people, at least.


Here’s Who Really Benefits From The Memory And
Brain Fitness Benefits Of Crossword Puzzles 


Can you guess who gets the most bang for their buck in the crossword universe?

The answer is simple:

The people who design crossword puzzles –  the cruciverbalists – experience the ultimate benefits.

As dedicated logophiles, crossword puzzle designers love using obscure words whenever and wherever they can.

Cruciverbalist graphic

And because they’re the architects of these games, they’re the ones most likely to remember the words they’ve enjoyed building into them.

To give a parallel example, it’s kind of like how songwriters find it easier than anyone else to remember the lyrics they’ve penned.


When Did We First Get Hooked on Crosswords?:
A Fascinating History


The crossword – a standard feature in newspapers across the globe – celebrated its hundredth birthday on December 21, 2013.

And it’s still going strong!

However, when journalist Arthur Wynne invented and printed the first ever “word-cross” puzzle in the New York World newspaper on December 21, 1913, it was hardly met with much fanfare.


the first crossword puzzle by Arthur Wynne


An editorial in The New York Times published on November 17, 1924 called crossword puzzles “a primitive sort of mental exercise” and a “sinful waste” of time.

The craze of word puzzles spread after publishing firm of Simon & Schuster launched its career in 1924 with a book of puzzles. This was the same year when the World published its first daily crossword puzzle.

Arthur Wynne, creator of the first crossword puzzle
Arthur Wynne, creator of the first crossword puzzle

Years later, the puzzle’s success surprised Wynne:

“… all I did was take an old idea as old as language and modernize it by the introduction of black squares,” he said in 1925. “I’m glad to have had a hand in it, and no one is more surprised at its amazing popularity” (Lynn J. Feigenbaum, Crosswords at a Crossroad, The Puzzle Turns 100. What is the clue to its Survival?).

Wynne was inspired by ancient word squares – where words read the same across and down.

Wynne also took inspiration from another puzzle, the acrostic – in which sets of letters (such as the initial or final letters of the lines) taken in order form a word or phrase or a regular sequence of letters of the alphabet.

Ultimately, the current format with its compact square diagram of white spaces and black bars, with connected across and down words, and numbered clues became popular.

The Addiction Theory Of Why We Love Crossword Puzzles


Word puzzles are not only fun, but immensely satisfying as every crossword problem has that one perfect solution – the feeling of perfection we miss in our everyday lives and seek through art, literature and now the Internet.

There’s also an almost addictive pleasure to finally finishing a puzzle.

Crossword puzzle featuring the word "narcotic"
Are crossword puzzles addictive?

Why is that?

Recall that ‘aha’ moment when you finally get that elusive word or phrase solution. Moments like those confirm, even if it’s only to yourself, how knowledgeable, smart and well-informed you are.


That’s A Heady Feeling!


Yet, therein lies part of the problem:

Isn’t it really the case that solving crosswords is the opposite of quest for knowledge?

When you think about it, crossword puzzles are kind of like a quest for confirmation. A journey to confirm that you are knowledgeable in a way that gives your brain that addictive high of accomplishment.

There’s more:

Some people have even called the crossword a sort of geometric Rorschach test, a kind of psychological experience that reflects the human need to solve a mystery.


Want to Know The Real Story?


In reality, crosswords encourage you to give up on things you don’t immediately know. For instance, if you don’t know a particular word linked to a clue …

You don’t know it!

And here’s the kicker…

Even if you did research to find the answer, would you remember it over the long term?


The amount of time the average person spends actually challenging their mind is questionable.


Because we usually know when we don’t know something.

As a result, we stop right there.

The instant our lack of knowledge becomes clear…

We’re gone!


If the original motive to complete a crossword was to develop your brain, stopping the instant you feel challenged is as good as cheating.

Why Is Crossword Cheating Bad For The Brain?


When it comes to playing word games, we find an imbalance between frustration and challenge.

The frustration is often too strong. It overrides the fun of challenges that propel you forward throughout the puzzle without creating barriers that make you want to quit.

Or worse, cheat and look up the answer without submitting yourself to much of a challenge in the first place.

The Stimulating Benefits Of Working With Crosswords


All’s not lost though…

While the research results in this area are mixed, some studies have found doing crosswords can actually stimulate the brain.

Man with a brain getting well-exercised while completing a crossword puzzle
Crossword puzzles have been proven to stimulate the brain. But that does not mean completing them improves it.

A study of 488 elderly people by researchers at Department of Neurosciences, University of California San Diego found that solving crossword puzzles delayed the onset of accelerated memory decline by 2.54 years.

It was not all good news, however. Check this out:

Once mental decline sets in, the deterioration is usually rapid. However, some findings suggest that word puzzles did help delay the onset of dementia.

For example, researchers at the University of Exeter Medical School and Kings College London analysed data from more than 17,000 healthy people aged 50 and over. They found that the more regularly people did crosswords, the better their brain functioned in later life.

According to their results, people who engage in word puzzles have brain function equivalent to ten years younger than their age, on tests of grammatical reasoning speed and short term memory accuracy.


But There’s A Catch…
And It’s A BIG One…


“It is essential that we find out what lifestyle factors really make a difference to helping people maintain healthy brains to stop the soaring rise of the disease (dementia). 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.”

This quote is from Clive Ballard, Professor of Age-Related Diseases at the University of Exeter Medical School.

Basically what he’s saying is that the results don’t really demonstrate that crossword puzzles help. There are too many competing factors to tell.

To make things even more confusing, check this out:

According to Dr Doug Brown, Director of Research of Alzheimer’s Society:

“This new research does reveal a link between word puzzles, like crosswords, and memory and thinking skills, but we can’t say definitively that regular ‘puzzling’ improves these skills.”

He recommends “keeping physically active, avoiding smoking and eating a healthy balanced diet” to reduce the risk of developing dementia.


What Are We Supposed To Conclude From These Confusing Contradictions?


Well, for one thing, these researchers are trying to have their cake and eat it too. They are saying that “yes, solving puzzles helps” on the one hand, “but it probably really doesn’t” on the other.

Which is it?

The truth:

It’s Not all Fun and Games When it Comes to Helping Your Brain
(And It Doesn’t Need To Be)


If only games could help you gain brain power!

While crosswords can be fun and satisfying, after the first dozen or so puzzles, the activity doesn’t offer enough variety or difficulty to engage your whole brain.

And as suggested, the temptation to skip over the challenging parts or cheat is so high that the actual amount of exercise you’re receiving is highly questionable.

And because of this high capacity for cheating and giving up that crossword puzzles invite, many people are actually not experiencing the ingredient that matters.


The Key Rule:
What Matters Most for a Healthy Brain


The key to a vibrant, healthy brain includes challenge and novelty. Doing only crosswords will help you get really good at solving crossword puzzles but nothing more.

This is because brain games can primarily improve the specific function that it is being trained for.

A 1999 study found that being more experienced in doing crossword puzzles didn’t offset the effects of aging when it came to mental tests of vocabulary and reasoning.

quote about how crossword puzzles don't work

Moreover, the study revealed that success in solving crossword puzzles largely appeared to be a function of the amount of knowledge the individual already had, with little or no contribution of reasoning ability.

An independent panel set up by the National Institutes of Health also concluded that there is “no evidence of even moderate scientific quality” that exercise, drugs, dietary supplements or increased social engagement, reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

I can’t emphasize this enough.

Research also states that any positive effects of being proficient in crossword solving does not elevate frontal lobe brain functions like decision-making, planning and judgment – functions that allow us to carry out our daily lives.

Moreover, just like physical exercise, when you stop doing the mental workouts, your brain loses the immediate gains.

How Crossword Puzzles Work For Kids Vs Adults 


Surprisingly, solving crossword puzzles can build confidence and poise in school kids. This was the result found during a project presented to the Faculty of the School of Education, The University of Southern California.

Birthday cake crossword puzzle

The project also found that solving puzzles can also help young people learn to concentrate, develop systematic work habits and build the ability to recognize and deal with various problems.

Moreover, according to the report, puzzles with their natural inference to games, can stimulate children’s interest. (Robert Louis Ramsdell, Educational Use of Crossword Puzzles for Elementary Schools)

A Better Way to Improve Your Brain and Get Smarter



One quick and easy way to make you smarter is to address people by name every time you see them and dialing frequently from memory rather than using speed dial.

If you are looking for a complete brain workout try this brain fitness method…

Here’s where to get started:

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Memory improvement training should always be linked to memorizing information that will immediately improve your life.

And that’s at the core of Magnetic Memory Method.

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Why Is This Important?


Because tracking your outcomes leads to rapid improvement.

You not only get to remember the information faster, but also get predictable and reliable permanence that grows in strength each time you use the Magnetic Memory Method.

Even better:

All other memory techniques including playing crossword puzzles can be used inside of Memory Palaces.

But this never takes place the other way around (For example, you can’t use Memory Palaces inside of the Major Method the way you can use the Major Method inside of Memory Palaces.)


The Real Value Of The Crossword Puzzle


Crossword puzzles do have a value – but these ultimately amount to being little more than recreational in nature.

At the most, if you can solve a puzzle, you know your brain is still pretty much intact. But whether your brain is getting stronger and sharper, the more puzzles you solve, is a matter of opinion.

The undebatable fact remains that using Memory Palaces the Magnetic Memory Method way can help you see some real improvement in your brain’s problem solving faculties.

It not only stimulates your brain, it also helps move information into long term memory faster and with predictable and reliable permanence.

So, let’s get started playing the games that truly help. (Hint: It’s using the Memory Palace to learn and remember anything forever!)

Are you in?

12 Responses

  1. There used to be something called a paragraph. It linked sentences with a common theme into units that were easily digestible (and the eyes and brain kind-of pre- and post-read neighbouring sentences so that it was actually possible to read paragraphs rather than individual sentences, or scan an article and quickly get the salient points). Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I find trying to read an article with single-sentence “paragraphs” quite labour intensive and repetitive, and I seem less able to remember anything : )

    Long live the paragraph!

    1. Thanks for expressing this concern, Will. I appreciate you raising the issue because it relates to the topics of attention span and Digital Amnesia.

      Some of the reasons the paragraph has devolved into 2-3 sentence units (or even a 1 word unit) are easy to explain and educated people need to be aware of them because they are participating in this shift:

      Online user behavior matched by those who create, monitor, and seek to control the flow of online traffic.

      The more people use mobile, for example, the less likely the virtues of the paragraph you describe can take place. Mobile also reinforces the “scroll”-like nature of the web, leading to more skimming and scanning.

      As an online educator, my goal is to find a balance between multi-media elements that meet the majority of readers at the level of mass consumption behaviors while still upholding as many elements of the intellectual tradition as possible.

      One of these elements from “tradition” is long content, especially the kind that requires sustained focus. Oddly, Google and to a certain extent YouTube are favoring longer content in their search metrics, but the content itself still needs certain formal/structural “tricks” to extend that focus. It is an ongoing game of writing for machines and humans at the same time.

      In my Film Studies course on a separate YouTube channel, I’m sticking to more intellectually rigorous and formal language (for now). Titles like: Narrative Structure In Oedipus Rex: Dilemma and the Resolution Of Crisis.

      But it’s easy to see that, even though I’m “speaking in paragraphs” in these videos, the online powers that be (Robots who read what Christian Bök might call “Robopoetics”) aren’t going to favor this kind of content. If I were to publish prose versions of these lectures, the traffic would bounce from my website faster than water on a hot frying pan.

      The matter of reader (or better said “visitor”) behavior makes it even less likely that Google will feature the content in search. Who do we point the finger at?

      The answer is as disarming as it is easy:

      No one entity takes the brunt.


      Because we are facing an assemblage of human behavior and corporate mechanism coming together to refashion human interest, attention span and the kind of content it is possible to create for the sustenance of an intellectual career.

      What we’re seeing at the present moment is an ironic and paradoxical intellectual deskilling that still needs to hold attention span. The “old guard” is having a hard time changing, which means that the intellectuals are going to potentially just get more intellectual and more alienating with their überlong paragraphs and impenetrable language.

      As a scholar, I have been guilty of Just Being Difficult in my prose. As the book I’ve linked to suggests in part, there may be an argument in support of difficult ideas requiring difficult explanations, contra Einstein.

      What really matters to this discussion, however, is less about the form/content divide and more about what’s going to happen with those who remember what they read. For your interest, check out the discussion of what may be a rising class of mentally and memory literate people that Brad Zupp and I speculated about near the end of our first interview.

      I’ve since re-read the book I refer to in that lecture and have changed some of my position considerable. In other cases not. But for now, I really appreciate you raising this issue and ultimately agree – Long live the paragraph. Except in places where the majority are never going to read it. Education is like casting a net and your skill as an educator boils down to how many fish you catch and how many you release as better swimmers.

      And as I hope to have expressed, I have many long paragraphs in other places stemming from other aspects of my career where the paragraph (or “paragrowl”, as my dear friend Kane X. Faucher once described my writing style) not only dominates, but can only appeal to the old-fashioned amongst us. Oh, how many neighborhoods of paragraphs I have scribed! Complete Metropolises! Next stop… Planets!

      Thanks again for defending the paragraph. I am with you in spirit, if not on every post of this blog. For now, I reframe your manifesto as such:

      Long live content that matters and those who support it!

      1. Thanks, Anthony, for your thorough and thoughtful response. After I posted, I realised that the same thing is also happening to the sentence, which used to (often) have multiple clauses and an abundance of other punctuation and has now “devolved” into just a subject and a predicate, rather like what’s found in user manuals, making it more difficult to express complex thoughts. I suppose the coming of the digital age has meant we now think in ON/OFF terms (as in music recorded on CD or, worse, MP3, or as in digital photos) rather than the more complex and richer subtleties of analog (as in vinyl or film).

        But, well, “Long live content that enriches our lives.”

        1. Indeed, Will, and thanks for the follow-up.

          I’m convinced that Orwell would howl at the moon if he saw Newspeak in action. But the film in that reel decelerated to first slack and then a stop long ago.

          Great that you bring up analog, however. As long as people use their brains and let memory techniques help them, I keep up hope and will keep using every trick in and on the book to reach them.

          Speaking of analog, are you aware of the Magnetic Memory Method Print Newsletter? Many fat paragraphs abound in The Memory Connection and the pages that arrive month after month to keep the tradition humming along for those burned out or needing more than the Internet can bring them.

          Thanks again for your contribution and I look forward to your next post! 🙂

    2. I have to agree with Will. I constantly fight with the SEO rules of shorter sentences, but I am learning to do it.

      However YOAST recommends up to 300 words after each heading.

      Thus, building paragraphs with conjunctive words and phrases lets us create more meaty, less disjointed prose.

      My goal is always a double green rating – for readability and for SEO rating. With practice, it’s becoming quicker and easier.

      I enjoyed the topic. I have read your reply to Will. I believe there is a case to be made for a well constructed paragraph, with short (ish) sentences.

      Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

      1. Thanks kindly for this, Lesley.

        Yoast is an interesting indicator and I follow its recommendations to a certain point.

        As great as these tools can be, they are still machines. The real test is with human readers, and in the world of blogging, there are some metrics that measure engagement better than any robot ever can. (And yes, one of those metrics involves a tangible green, the kind most need and prefer to robot ratings.)

        What I find most fascinating is the comment/share ratio. For example, I have some posts with oodles of comments, but very low shares. Those with mega-shares often have no comments. Yet another category creates neither but gets meaningful subscribers who become fans and students.

        Again, Yoast can help. But there’s an X-factor to all of this, one of which might be called “style.” What seems disjointed to one kind of reader is poetic to another. Fast and easy to understand for some, too shifty and elliptical to the next.

        As I mentioned earlier, there is a need for balance in these matters when it comes to crafting educational content that gets acted upon in thought and behavior. That’s what I keep my sights on and Yoast is part of the journey, as is Grammarly, the Hemingway app and other tools.

        But the ultimate tool is the brain of the reader, and most are now multimedia readers or more than just prose. So long as we keep our sights on that, those of us with a message will win.

        And dare I say that it rather is like filling in a crossword puzzle at times. Sometimes you’ve got to tackle down before you’re done with across, or vice versa.

        Thanks again for the great contribution. I look forward to more soon! 🙂

  2. Hey Anthony, interesting podcast. I was wondering, what is your take on cryptic crosswords? I’m not a fan of regular crosswords because, as you said, you either know the answer or you don’t. End of. I love cryptic crosswords because even if you don’t know the answer, you can figure it out by making connections and deductions and decoding clues. And they’re never straight forward so it’s an interesting process, a skill you have to work on, rather than a straightforward quiz. Don’t know that it does much for brain health as such but it feels like you use a different mental gear than regular crosswords. To me anyway. Any thoughts?

    1. Great question, Happy Prat, and thanks for chiming in. It was great meeting you recently on one of my YouTube Live sessions and now having your participation here to extend that happy event.

      I think you’re right that “different mental gear” is at play with cryptic crossword puzzles. It is encouraging the player to strive for a magnitude of connection that is several orders higher than without this feature.

      I would propose more study is needed, but I think we can rest assured that each individual has the opportunity to be skeptical of the mental activities they engage in and do scientific analysis of their own. If one is rigorously honest about the outcomes and the cause-effect portraits they create, then that is what matters above all.

      And on that note, I should add that pleasure is a perfectly fine outcome, both for any kind of gaming and memory practice. In other words, one can memorize foreign language vocabulary, phrases, numbers, names or anything else for the pleasure of it alone. That outcome too is valid, even if brain fitness merely comes along for the ride.

      Thanks again for stopping by and I look forward to your next contribution! 🙂

  3. Wow, it’s great to know that crossword puzzles can also have a huge effect for the elderly.

    I’ve been thinking about buying educational crossword puzzles for kids since my child is at the age when she keeps on asking questions whenever she learns a new word. A crossword puzzle would surely keep her on the right track in expanding her vocabulary.

    1. Perhaps, Alice, but the point of this article is that the effect is not really proven to be positive. In fact, it can be the opposite.

      You might keep that in mind for young people as well. Reading and writing may prove much more effective, along with speaking and listening, particularly in topics that are challenging, but not to the point of frustration.

      It’s often possible to get expurgated versions of great literature for young people. I would suggest that approach far sooner than crossword puzzles, which are probably best reserved for fun.

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Anthony Metivier is the founder of the Magnetic Memory Method, a systematic, 21st century approach to memorizing foreign language vocabulary, names, music, poetry and more in ways that are easy, elegant, effective and fun.

Dr. Metivier holds a Ph.D. in Humanities from York University and has been featured in Forbes, Viva Magazine, Fluent in 3 Months, Daily Stoic, Learning How to Learn and he has delivered one of the most popular TEDx Talks on memory improvement.

His most popular books include, The Victorious Mind and… Read More

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