Hooked on… jigsaws

I am embarrassed to admit that I am hooked on jigsaws. I have always thought them ridiculous. A picture is cut into small pieces that are then laboriously put together, briefly admired then broken up and returned to the box. (No wonder, after all that effort, that people sometimes frame them). This seems to be the occupation of lonely, bored, unimaginative, and rather odd people.

I got out the puzzle for the grandchildren over the holidays, part of the “no screens here” campaign. They preferred to play killer Ludo (who knew that game could be so vicious?) or have T. Rex battle a hippopotamus in a contest that required the combatants to be repeatedly thrown against the wall. Occasionally a child would add a piece, but the puzzle never really got them. Surprisingly, some of my friends would say excitedly, “ooh, a puzzle” and put on their reading glasses.

Placing a piece causes a little frisson of delight, no doubt releasing a blip of dopamine in my brain to addict me further. It seems I am not alone. One early 20th century writer, Anne Williams  was on to it when she wrote:

‘… the inexorable progression of the puzzle addict: from the skeptic who first ridiculed puzzles as silly and childish, to the perplexed puzzler who ignored meals while chanting just one more piece; to the  bleary-eyed victor who finally put in the last piece in the wee hours of the morning’.

Jigsaws were invented in the 18th century. Originally wooden, they were often maps, designed to teach children geography.  They did not have the complicated interlocking shapes of modern puzzles, so when the cat jumped on the table the pieces were scattered. It was a popular Victorian pastime, and at one stage new puzzles were produced each week, eagerly awaited.

Some were made especially difficult by having irregular edges or the divisions running down colour lines, and most of them did not come with a picture so that the image gradually emerged as the pieces came together. They were very popular in the Depression, as a cheap form of entertainment and could be borrowed from the library.  Eventually, by the 20th century jigsaws were made of cardboard and cut into the shapes we now know.

They can be difficult: three dimensional, two-sided or even plain white. Mine is 500 pieces, but they can go up to 40,000!

The one I am doing is a dog. It has various shades and degrees of coat coarseness. Sometimes I believe I can perceive the shapes, subtle tones and patterns increasingly quickly and accurately.  I think this must be good for my brain; learning new skills (including puzzles) protects against cognitive decline.

Even better for the brain is an active social life. A frustrated puzzler in New Plymouth advertised for help with her jigsaw; she got twelve replies to her small notice and now they have a club.  Doing jigsaws could also be a form of “Mindfulness”, a ‘mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique”. British author, Margaret Drabble, did jigsaw puzzles while her husband underwent cancer treatment. For her, they offered “an innocent, soothing relief’.

My daughter is annoyed at my compulsion to justify my leisure activities – I turn joy into a means to an end, she says – puzzles for brain health and tranquility. What time I have left, I imagined should be used for meaningful, creative and even therapeutic endeavours and not just “passed”, but perhaps those Victorians who were happy to pass their time doing nothing more productive than a jigsaw were onto something. Perhaps just being alive and enjoying yourself is enough.

I finished the dog (three pieces missing) and moved onto horses. In the heat of last night, I wandered to the table where the new puzzle does not even have its edges done. Leaning over, pieces of jigsaw stuck to my sweaty breasts /skin so that I trailed them (the pieces) along the floor when I finally returned to bed. All retrieved I think.

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Anne Williams https://www.puzzlewarehouse.com/history-of-puzzles/ Margaret Drabble ( 2009) The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws. London:  Atlantic Books. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/mindfulness

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Specialist Psychiatrist and Clinical Advisor to Dementia Auckland. Old Age Psychiatrist and Dementia. Auckland Clinical Services Advisor.