Mental health benefits of brainteasers as GCHQ releases its 2023 codebreaker

Doing brainteasers and puzzles can help improve mental health, memory and other cognitive skills. (Getty Images)
Doing brainteasers and puzzles can help improve mental health, memory and other cognitive skills. (Getty Images)

Want to test your brainpower? The UK’s spy agency, GCHQ, has released its annual code-breaking brainteaser, and while it’s aimed at 11 to 18-year-olds, people of all ages are welcome to have a crack at it.

According to reports, this year’s challenge has some of the trickiest puzzles that GCHQ has ever released since it began three years ago. It is designed around a Christmas card sent by the intelligence agency’s director, Anne Keast-Butler, and is available to download from the GCHQ website.

The seven puzzles within the challenge include codebreaking, maths and analysis tests. They are “designed to test a range of problem-solving skills and encourage the use of teamwork to reveal the final festive message”.

The first challenge in the GCHQ annual codebreaker. (GCHQ)
The first challenge in the GCHQ annual codebreaker. (GCHQ)

Other than being a fun (and frustrating) activity to do, brainteasers and puzzles can also be good way to get a mental workout. Studies have shown that games designed to make players use their noggins to find their way out of a sticky situation resulted in improvements to memory and mental health.

A 2021 study analysing the effect of brainteaser computer games found that players showed significant improvement in their mental health and attention after playing. It said that brainteaser games “positively influence the central nervous system and activate stress path, leading to changes in brain signals and subsequently improved cognitive elements”.

Can you solve the riddle? (GCHQ)
Can you solve the riddle? (GCHQ)

We turned to Dr Amber Johnston, a renowned clinical psychologist in neuropsychology, to explain why brainteaser games can have such a positive impact on our mental wellbeing - as well as the importance of playing a diverse range of puzzles to keep all parts of our brain active.

Bring on the challenges

Johnston tells Yahoo UK: “What is well understood about both the brain and mental health is that people are highly driven to pursue learning. Anything that offers new challenge and learning opportunities has been found to lead to greater well-being and enjoyment, with studies showing that people prefer to choose a novel and challenging task over an easy, repetitive one, even without reward for participating in either.

“Because we are naturally motivated towards challenge and learning, brainteasers fit into a fun category of hobbies that can improve our mental health. It helps explain the quick rise of universal interest in new games like Wordle, and why sudoku and even pub quizzes have maintained their popularity.”

The important of mixing things up

Try a different type of brainteaser to ensure you use a wide range of cognitive functions. (Getty Images)
Try a different type of brainteaser to ensure you use a wide range of cognitive functions. (Getty Images)

But Johnston adds that, as with any form of learning, diversity and novelty is the key to keeping our brains firing on all cylinders.

She tells Yahoo UK that whenever she is asked about whether practicing any particular type of brainteaser or memory task will help improve cognitive ability, she says: “Yes, it makes you very good at that particular task.”

“After brain injury, clients often come to me looking for strategies they can practice to help with memory loss or problem solving abilities, etc, but unfortunately, practicing one particular memory task over and over does not generalise beyond getting good at that particular task,” she explains.

“This might be helpful if you want to improve something specific - the ability to remember the six-digit codes that pop up with two-factor identification, [for example]. The more you practice remembering this six-digit ‘game’, the better you may become with it as it strengthens your working memory.

“But that will not necessarily improve your overall memory functioning nor make you good at another working memory task like Sudoku. Therefore, what we recommend for overall enhancement of higher level thinking skills, particularly in an older population worried about having less cognitive stimulation in their daily lives, is to challenge your brain in as many unique and diverse ways as you can.”

What brainteasers should you do?

Making sure you engage in different types of brainteasers and puzzles will ensure you use an array of cognitive skills, rather than just one. Johnston says it’s also a good way of using your free time to throw in a few memory tasks.

“Maybe a crossword or Wordle, and why not a pub quiz?” she suggests. “Finally, the gold star tip that has been found to be incredibly helpful for not only emotional well-being but also brain health is social engagement.

“When we talk with people, particularly strangers, we end up encountering all kinds of new and novel conversational topics that increase our learning, utilise a large proportion of our cognitive abilities, plus help develop connections, all of which are highly correlated with overall wellbeing.”

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