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Stroke Smart Magazine

March/April 2008

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Sudoku: Brain Food

By Mark A.W. Andrews, Ph.D.

Most of us are familiar with the feelings of satisfaction that come from solving a Sudoku or crossword puzzle or a riddle. But few of us have ever stopped to think about why completing these types of challenging mental tasks causes such positive emotional reactions.

Actually, many researchers have sought to understand this very concept. But, until recent times there had been a lack of in-depth knowledge of the brain. However, advanced equipment now allows us to see the brain’s reaction to various stimuli. These brain imaging tools have helped us understand the brain better and shed some light on this topic.

Results from various brain scan studies show that the “satisfaction center” of the brain is stimulated when we play these mental games. The “prefrontal cortex” is the area of the brain responsible for directing logical thoughts and actions towards goals. The interaction between the cortex and the satisfaction center may create feelings of pleasure in response to solving problems.

The neurotransmitter dopamine is also involved. Dopamine is a chemical substance produced naturally by the human body. It generates the feeling of pleasure or happiness. When doing these puzzles, dopamine may lead to feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction. It may drive you to want to solve more of them. This same system may be involved with “shopaholics” and the feeling of satisfaction in finding a bargain.

Also, MRIs indicate that there is a difference between pleasure and satisfaction. Pleasure and happiness are seen as passive emotions; they happen to you. In contrast, satisfaction is considered an active pursuit. While pleasure is enjoyable, animals are eager to succeed, adapt to a situation, or solve a problem. In doing so they gain satisfaction.

In addition, such thought stimulation appears to help maintain the brain, even after a stroke or other forms of brain changes associated with high blood pressure, diabetes or Alzheimer disease. It appears that “active” leisure pursuits, leading stimulating lives or getting a higher education, may cause people to develop more complex connections among brain cells. These connections help the brain cope with the loss of some cells. With the proper stimulation, people may be able to create needed detours around damaged brain cells. In such a way, stimulating activities, from Sudoku or crossword puzzles to going to museums or reading, appear to build a “cognitive reserve” account on which the brain can draw at older ages or when memory problems arise, and help stave off mental problems.

Dr. Andrews is a Professor of Physiology at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Erie, Penn.


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