Puzzles: The Joy of Being Perplexed | Connecticut Public Radio

Puzzles: The Joy of Being Perplexed

Jan 27, 2015

People have been puzzled since the beginning. And while that might sound like a problem, it may in fact be our preferred state of being. Since the first fires needed to be lit with tinder too damp to kindle, we've been problem solving. When one problem was solved, another was found. And when seemingly, we could no longer find enough problems to satiate our appetites, we created puzzles: problems in a box; food for our minds.

Fast forward a few thousand years. Our instinctual need to problem solve is stronger than ever and hence, puzzles more popular than ever. The jigsaw variety saw us through the dark days of The Great Depression-- providing affordable, time-consuming fun for families with few other options.

And when World War Two claimed most of our country's metal for military use, and families waited anxiously at home for word from their loved ones, toy-makers turned once again to the tried and true appeal of the cardboard cut-ups.

The 1980's saw the rise of the Rubik's Cube. With the over 350 million units that flew off the shelves, it was quickly declared "Toy of The Year" in 1980 and 1981. And if that's not impressive enough, when disassembled, the cube's pieces can be arranged in over 519 quintillion configurations-- that's 519 with eighteen zeros after it!

Today the puzzle industry is experiencing a transformation. Computer algorithms are both solving and designing new puzzles. 3-D printers are then rendering those designs into increasingly sophisticated assemblages. And old puzzle designs are emerging renewed on digital platforms.

But don't let nostalgia overtake you just yet. Classic puzzle makers are still hard at work, hand crafting masterful works of mind-bending art that both collectors and enthusiasts fawn over. Robert Yarger, also known as "Stickman," is one such craftsman. With demand for his puzzle boxes far exceeding supply, his exquisite creations are fiercely sought after and often find their way into museums and collections around the world.  

Teachers too, are praising the value of puzzles. With benefits  including increased coordination, dexterity, spatial intelligence and executive brain functioning, early childhood educators have been increasingly incorporating puzzle play into academics. And with patience and problem-solving skills at a premium in today's job market, this would seem like a wise decision.

Our need to challenge ourselves doesn't seem to be diminishing. And as long as that's true, the popularity of puzzles will likely remain high. Engaging the same drive to problem solve that has motivated us since the beginning, puzzles offer our brains practice for making sense of the world around us.

Please leave comments below, email us at colin@wnpr.org, or tweet us @wnprcolin.



Colin McEnroe and Chion Wolf contributed to this show.