It’s an oft-stated truism that crosswords are good for your brain — but is that correct?
- Pilot study takes 60,000 images of a brain solving crossword clues
- Subject given just nine seconds to answer each of the 300 clues
- Researchers say results may help inform treatment of diseases in the future
This week a team of researchers in Melbourne put the idea to the test in what is believed to be a world-first pilot study to examine what exactly happens in your brain when you solve a clue.
They want to find out if there is a specific region of the brain — an “aha” part — associated with problem solving.
Crossword creator David Astle was the guinea pig in the experiment, which involved spending two hours inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine trying to solve more than 300 random crossword clues while scientists monitored his brain activity.
“There’s so much anecdotal evidence that suggests crosswords are beneficial for the brain, but there’s no hard data,” he said.
“And these days you can’t just build theories on fuzzy assumptions.”
Sarah Holper, a doctor, crossword fanatic and self-confessed “fangirl” of Mr Astle’s, pitched him the idea about 18 months ago.
They teamed up with researchers at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and set about designing the clinical parameters of the experiment.
The test involved Mr Astle going inside a fully functioning fMRI machine, where a telescope-like set-up allowed him to see a computer screen with crossword clues on it.
He held a controller with a button and would click it when he knew the answer.
He was shown more than 200 cryptic clues and more than 100 quick clues, and for each was given just nine seconds to answer, with a three-second break between each clue.
Here is a sample of the cryptic clues Mr Astle attempted (answers at the end of the article):
- Darkness is a terrible thing (5)
- African pioneer moaned audibly by the way (8)
- What we eat during Lent? (4,4)
- Faculty I place in audition? (8)
“Despite it being such an alien environment, I was still getting the euphoric rush of solving clues,” Mr Astle said.
“I ended up getting about 70 per cent in the cryptics and about 90 per cent in the quick.”
“When it comes to the task and the joy of solving conundrums, and in particular cryptic crosswords, it’s good to actually be part of it and to play a guinea pig in the name of neuroscience.”
Dr Holper compiled the clues and broke the cryptics down into three types, to give greater variation in the data collected. They included:
- Anagrams: “Which involve mental rearrangement, so maybe the visual area of the brain.”
- Homophones: “So they sound the same, so maybe the auditory cortex might be involved.”
- Pure cryptic clues: “Like ‘swinger’s bar’ is ‘trapeze’ — it’s a bit of a pun and that is so suddenly you realise the answer.”
Dr Holper described the speed of Mr Astle’s problem solving as “un-freaking-believable” and said the researchers now had a “horrific” amount of data to wade through — more than 60,000 images of Mr Astle’s brain, to be precise.
“I was worried that the clues might be a little bit hard and that we’d just have lots of nine seconds of nothing, but he was solving them faster than we could even read them in the control room,” she said.
“Cryptic crosswords have been around for more than 100 years and people always say anecdotally, ‘I get this great feeling when I solve a clue’.
“That hasn’t ever actually been characterised as what’s actually happening in the brain.”
Dr Holper described the pilot study as a “passion project” and one the team of researchers were finding time for amid their full-time work.
She anticipated it would take about a month to wade through the data and see what conclusions could be made.
While Mr Astle was the first to take part in the unique experiment, he may not be the last.
David Abbott, the head of the neuroinformatics laboratory at the Florey Institute, oversaw the study and said depending on the results they may seek funding to widen the trial and see what else they could uncover.
“From a medical and clinical point of view, the more we understand about how the brain works in health, the more it can help us understand how it’s going wrong in various diseases,” Associate Professor Abbott said.
“There may well be clinical utility down the track if it turns out there are conditions or diseases where there is some impairment in this problem-solving ability.
“Maybe we can devise a functional MRI test that might have some diagnostic or prognostic benefit.”
Crossword clue answers:
- Fast food