Crossword puzzles spell out ‘success’ for IU alum, Alzheimer’s prevention

POSTED AT 12:00 AM ON Apr. 10, 2008 


As students sit in class toward the end of the semester dreaming of summer, a mix of black and white boxes can become a fascinating distraction.

Crossword puzzles, first developed in 1913 by journalist Arthur Wynne, stress the importance of a large vocabulary. Studies show puzzles can help keep the brain sharp, and thanks to one IU alum, the University has an interesting connection to puzzle-making.

The puzzle pro

Will Shortz, a 1974 graduate, is the editor of the daily crossword puzzle at The New York Times. As a child growing up in Crawfordsville, Ind., Shortz first started creating puzzles at age 8. By 14, he had starting selling his creations. From there, he went on to IU, where he utilized the Individualized Major Program to earn a degree in enigmatology, the study of puzzles.

Shortz said IU, the only school he applied to, ended up being one of the best places he could have chosen for college. He first intended to major in history; he soon switched to economics. But his sophomore year that Shortz realized his childhood passion for puzzling could be made into a career.

“Only about a dozen colleges in the country have a program where you can literally major in anything you want,” Shortz said. “I had all of IU’s resources willing to work with me.”

After graduating, Shortz went on to law school at the University of Virginia. In 1983, he made the move to New York to become the youngest crossword editor in history at The Times. In addition to his work at the paper, Shortz makes puzzles for National Public Radio, which air every Sunday morning. He also directs the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held annually in New York.

Puzzle-making allows Shortz to express his creativity while exercising his mind.

“I love to play with language,” he said. “It’s a quiet way to entertain people. Regular entertainers are on stage, or sing, or play musical instrument, or have a comedy act. I think I get the same satisfaction.”

Though his self-determined classes obviously had puzzle-doing on the syllabus, Shortz doesn’t see a problem with other kids working the word riddles during class. He believes puzzles increase the flexibility of the mind.

“Crosswords lead you into every field of knowledge,” he said.

Learning new terms can help someone overcome a weak area of trivia – in Shortz’s case: opera.

“The knowledge that crosswords give you isn’t valuable by itself, but it familiarizes you with all sorts of subjects,” he said.

The ups and downs

Students at IU seem to embrace Shortz’s ideology.

Freshman Jordan Bailey works the crossword puzzle in the Indiana Daily Student every day. He said he enjoys keeping his mind and vocabulary sharp with puzzles and particularly likes pop culture clues. Bailey works the puzzles mostly in his large lecture classes in an effort to pass time.

“I like to think I pay attention while doing the puzzle,” he said. “But I do hide the paper when my professor walks by.”

Though some might frown upon doing puzzles during class, studies suggest it can be helpful.

According to a 2002 study by the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center and Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago, doing crosswords, Sudokus and other mentally stimulating activities is shown to reduce the risk for developing Alzheimer’s later in life. This study also found that on the whole, people who participated more often in mind exercises were more likely to have a sharper memory.

But multitasking in class might not be the best idea, said IU psychology lecturer Allison Tomusk.

“The brain really only processes one thing at a time,” she said. “When you think you’re multitasking, you really go back and forth between two things. The more complex they are, the more time it takes to switch.”

Tomusk said students who do puzzles during lectures are sacrificing on both ends.

“If you listen to a lecture and do a crossword puzzle at the same time, you’re really not going to do either very well,” she said.

Shortz said he’s had college students tell him they learn more from solving his puzzles than from what the professor is teaching.

“I think it’s time well spent,” he joked.


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