What can Wordle do for our brains?

February 10, 2022 — Forget morning coffee, stretching, or meditation. There’s a new way to kickstart your brain.

Jeanenne Ray, a book editor in Marin County, CA, tackles it first thing in the morning, while she’s still in bed. It’s also first on the to-do list for Shelly Groves, who owns a dog walking and pet sitting service in Avondale Estates, GA. That’s also the pattern of Todd Siesky, an Atlanta communications professional, but he manages to run away when it’s too much frustrating.

The three are among the millions who play Wordle, the “it” puzzle/brain teaser of the moment. Created by software engineer Josh Wardle of Brooklyn, NY, for his partner during the pandemic, it has now been sold to The New York Times and will initially remain free.

For those who have never tested their brain power on Wordle, it’s simple yet challenging. Players are given six attempts to guess the five-letter word of the day. After entering a word as their first guess, they receive feedback, with color-coded blocks telling them whether the letters chosen are correct and in the right place.

Can it help brain power?

Can playing Wordle daily improve our memory and overall brain power, besides giving us fresh fodder to brag on social media, where players obsessively post their scores?

Probably two neuroscientists who study how the human brain works, say as long as frustration doesn’t outweigh its benefits.

Michael Yassa, PhD, professor and director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine, began playing Wordle in January.

“It activates our dopamine,” he says.

That is the neurotransmitter associated with feeling pleasure, satisfaction and motivation. “That can positively color your day,” he says.

Playing the game will also kick-start your problem solving skills, Yassa say.

Another benefit, he says, is the social interaction that comes naturally for most. When a player gets the answer in two or three tries, social media bragging is common.

“We know that social interactions are good for our brains,” says Yassa.

Hanging out with others, he says, releases more dopamine, along with oxytocin, the so-called love hormone that comes up during cuddling and is linked to empathy, trust, and relationship building.

Sharing results is usually a healthy competition, says Yassa. He compares the results with his brother, who lives on the East Coast.

“I feel like I’ve grown a lot closer to my brother,” he says. As for wins, “we go back and forth” with one winning one day, the other the next.

What about some experts’ claims that Wordle will create new brain synapses necessary for communication between cells, or amplify existing ones? There is no research on Wordle and building synapses that Yassa is aware of, but he says it makes sense that it would build or strengthen them.

“If you’re engaged in a new activity, you can create new synapses,” he says, and scientists know this is part of the brain’s ongoing plasticity, the nervous system’s ability to change in response to internal or external stimuli.

But it’s not possible right now, so say how much synapse-building Wordle could do, Yassa says.

“Anything that triggers a high level of engagement — something that involves memory and problem solving — is good for your brain and will amplify those processes in your brain,” says Earl Miller, PhD, professor of neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. . “Your brain is like a muscle, and the more you use it, the better it gets at doing it” stuff.”

But Yassa warns that it may take some time to see effects on memory. And occasional players may not see the same benefits as everyday fans.

word puzzle research

In a previous study conducted well before Wordle debuted, researchers examined the link between word puzzle habits and 14 cognitive measures, such as memory and attention, in more than 19,000 adults ages 50 to 93. Some never played word puzzles, while others did. occasionally, often or even more than once a day.

For each measure tested, those who never did word puzzles or did them only occasionally performed worse than virtually every other group, the researchers found.

Player experiences

Many players say Wordle is just fun. “Having a puzzle rooted in words is both fascinating and enjoyable,” Siesky says. All puzzles have a logic, he says, including Wordle’s. That’s part of the appeal for him.

“I feel like it’s good for my 58-year-old brain,” Groves says, though she thinks she doesn’t do it long enough to see improvements in memory. It hasn’t changed her use of social media in any way. She considers sharing the results there as “a modest boast or perhaps a humbling moment” for those times when you have to guess all six times to get the word, or, chillingly, if you don’t understand it at all.

Ray doesn’t compete with anyone, but gives feedback when she sees results on social media. A former high school classmate recently got the answer in two tries, she says, and that led to some congratulations and a pleasant conversation.

Players often exchange tips, with some benign ribbing and advice. For example, while ‘adieu’ is a favorite starting word for some, because of all the vowels, it has been scorned by others.

In January, the British players were unhappy, pointing out that ‘favour’, the word of the day, was ‘Americanized’ and was actually spelled ‘favour’.

Sharing the best tips is apparently expected. A player tweeted recently: “I just told my boyfriend that I always start with GRAVY on wordle and he is absolutely furious with me.”

Frustration Factor

Some days are of course harder than others. “When I get really frustrated, I force myself to think about patterns and language,” Siesky says. If that doesn’t work, he takes a break.

Yassa recognizes that frustration factor, because he experienced it firsthand. He says he has never solved the puzzle in one sitting. “I got it twice in two tries, and many more in four tries. One lasted six,” he laughs, “and it almost gave me a heart attack.”

If it’s too stressful, it might not be your game, Yassa and Miller agree. “Stress is counterproductive to your health,” Miller says. Temporary frustration with Wordle is okay, but if it’s really stressing you out, “find something you’re better at,” he suggests.

“It’s a matter of trial and error,” says Yassa about the best choices for people. If Wordle isn’t your thing, you might be better at numbers than words, Yassa says, and you should try a number-based puzzle like Sudoku. That’s one, admits Yassa, that he avoids.

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