Sudoku Therapy

(c) 2011 by Patricia R. Henschen, M.A.

Solving Sudoku puzzles can help heal the brain.

Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” – Vincent van Gogh

As Van Gogh, the famous artist and fellow depression sufferer, indicates in the quote above, depression can be healed by doing many small, seemingly insignificant things consistently over time. He probably knew what he was talking about, since he created beautiful paintings such as “Starry Night” and “Sunflowers” one brush stroke at a time.

Believe it or not, working Sudoku puzzles frequently—at least three times per week—is one of these small things.

The brains of people who do not have depression are resilient, capable of processing myriad thoughts, events, words, and sensory information almost instantaneously. The brains of people who do have depression are likely to skid to a halt if they receive too much input too quickly. This is because, in cases of moderate-to-severe depression, actual brain damage has occurred due to the chemical ravages of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. In addition, physical trauma in the form of head injuries may have occurred at some point.[i] As a result, the brains of people with depression exhibit cognitive and emotional dysfunction. In other words, you can’t think clearly and your mood is in the toilet.

Think back: Have you ever had any kind of head injury, especially when you were a child or young adult?

I was surprised when I found out that having sustained a head injury could increase the risk of depression, but as I thought about it, it made perfect sense. When I was in my mid-20s, I stood up into the top drawer of a five-drawer filing cabinet at work—you know, one of those heavy-duty, industrial-style jobs. I had left the drawer open while I bent down to pick up something that had fallen on the floor. I forgot the drawer was open and, when I stood up, the top of my head connected violently with the bottom of the file drawer.

The pain in that moment was excruciating, but even worse were the severe headaches and dizziness that plagued me for nearly a year. I was in so much pain that I had difficulty doing my job, and I had to lie down frequently throughout the day with my eyes closed. In addition to getting a CAT scan, I also consulted a neurologist who specialized in headaches. After an exam that tested my reflexes, eye-hand coordination, ability to walk, etc., he said that I had post-traumatic head injury syndrome. The headaches, he stated, would fade with time. He never mentioned that I might be prone to depression later in life.

All this is to say that engaging in predictable, repetitive, yet mildly challenging tasks such as working Sudoku puzzles can actually contribute to healing the brain and make it more resilient. Successfully—and repeatedly—solving Sudokus develops the following attributes:

a)     Ability to see patterns and make connections;

b)    Ability to think ahead;

c)     Concentration;

d)    Persistence;

e)     Relaxed mind;

f)     Desire to succeed.

Other benefits include a sense of accomplishment and the establishment of new neural connections in the brain.

When I first attempted Sudokus more than four years ago, I could not do even the simplest level without looking at the answer key. As the years went by, I found myself able to complete those puzzles fairly easily without “cheating”; I went on to the more difficult levels and developed more sophisticated problem-solving strategies. Now, it’s exciting to be able to solve a puzzle that would have stumped me a few years ago. On occasion, I can even complete puzzles at the “Diabolical” level!

You don’t have to be good at math to solve Sudokus. Although they are number puzzles, they have nothing to do with math. You could substitute nine different icons for the numbers 1-9, if you wished. Numerous websites give instructions on how to solve Sudokus; YouTube even has videos! Just do a search to see which ones appeal to you the most.

If you are new to Sudokus, give yourself permission to take your time, to make mistakes, and to not finish them at first. As you practice, you will find it gets easier and you will delight in how much sharper your thinking becomes. Your self-esteem—and your mood—will improve with every puzzle you complete.

Here’s to a new brain!

(c) 2011 by Patricia R. Henschen, M.A.

[i] Tracey Holsinger, M.D., et al, “Head Injury in Early Adulthood and the Lifetime Risk of Depression,” Archives of General Psychiatry, 59.1 (2002) : 17-22. Web. Jan. 2002.


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Filed under Getting Your Bearings, Making Tracks

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