Whip Your Brain into Shape with Word Puzzles and Verbal Play

Engage Your Brain With Comic Strip Cut-Ups, Captionless Cartoons, and More

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

To give your brain a workout, it’s time to think outside the box. Dr. Restak gives us some fun exercises and word puzzles to improve our verbal dexterity and organizational skills.

Wooden letter pieces scattered on white background
Our brains thrive on creating new connections through solving puzzles and evaluating word arrangements. Photo by paffy / Shutterstock

Puzzles for Your Brain

One way to enhance your brain is to embrace ambiguity. Puzzles, or riddles, are uniquely appropriate for this. 

Try this puzzle: Rearrange the letters in the two words “new door” to make one word. You’re probably thinking of ways to rearrange the letters to come up with a novel word, going through all of the possibilities alphabetically or just guessing. In fact, the answer is easy: “new door” becomes “one word.”

The brain thrives on thinking of things in different ways, and puzzles allow you to accomplish this. Here’s another one: What occurs twice in a moment, once every minute, yet never in a billion years? 

To solve it, forget about analyzing units of time. Think in terms of the words and letters: moment, minute, and a billion years. The answer is the letter “m.”

Puzzles can be divided into two types: those solved by planning, deciding, and evaluating, and those solved by a sudden insight—the “eureka” moment when the answer comes to us in a flash. That involves the anterior temporal lobes, which fire one-third of a second before insight. Thus, brain activation actually precedes conscious insight into the answer of the puzzle. 

Here is another puzzle: At opposite ends are my mouth and my head. I run for miles without leaving my bed. What am I? 

The sentences are paradoxical: mouth and head at opposite ends? The words must have several meanings; keep thinking about it. What’s the answer? We’re talking about a river.

Playing with Words

Develop an interest in word games. We are verbal creatures and our brain thrives on words. As we learn new words, we expand our mental horizons. We can add extra benefit by playing with words. 

“The book I wrote with Scott Kim, The Playful Brain, uses puzzles to stimulate and optimize brain function,” Dr. Restak said. “Word puzzles call on our left hemisphere, which mediates words and language.

“Word puzzles stimulate the language areas in novel ways. We must come up with new and creative arrangements of the words. Crossword puzzles are especially effective at making us think of words in uncommon ways.”

As an example of a fun word puzzle, have a friend cut the words from the caption of a cartoon and rearrange them. See if you can restore the punchline by putting the words back in their correct order. 

The New Yorker routinely provides cartoons without captions and challenges the readers to provide the caption. Puzzles involving cartoons strengthen the brain’s ability to switch points of view and think about things in unusual ways. They also challenge the brain to work with ambiguity and uncertainty.

As another word challenge, have someone cut and scramble the frames of a comic strip, and then see if you can rearrange them into their correct order. This exercise tests your puzzle solving ability, your sense of timing, and logic. 

After you’ve mastered the single puzzles, mix two or three of them together. This comic rearrangement exercise is similar to the basic skills we use when we make plans, tell stories, and anticipate the likely consequence of certain actions. This is primarily a frontal lobe exercise involving timing, sequencing, organization, and executive control. 

How to Solve Puzzles

How do we solve puzzles? Here are several of the approaches that Scott Kim suggests in The Playful Brain

First, try something. Just getting started may be the hardest step. Even a wild guess is fine because figuring out why the guess doesn’t work helps you decide where to focus your efforts. 

Second, persist! The biggest reason for not solving puzzles is giving up. If you feel you can’t persist any longer, then look up the answer. 

Incidentally, looking at the answer isn’t cheating but simply helping your brain learn principles that will be useful in future puzzles. Understand why the answer was correct, and then imagine how you might have gotten the answer yourself.

Finally, you can set time limits. The brain responds best with a set time limit. This is the opposite of multitasking; you’re doing only one thing, but you are doing it faster. 

This process is called brain programming, which is setting a performance goal for the brain and then allowing the brain to fulfill that goal. For example, you can set a goal to solve a puzzle in five minutes, prominently displaying the timer.

All of these are ways that you can improve your skills at puzzles and enhance your brain in the process.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.