Suzana Herculano-Houzel

The pleasure of unjigging the puzzle


It’s been two months since I took possession of the dining table, the only place in the house large enough to accommodate the assembly of a 3,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. Almost every day during those months, I went to the table either after waking up, when my neurons weren’t awake enough to work, or after dinner, when my neurons no longer wanted to work, to put a few pieces in their places. Always under the astonished gaze of my family, of course, constantly inquiring about the fate of the puzzle when finished, in the (vain) hope that I would eventually change my mind about taking it apart.

Putting puzzles together is an unusual pleasure. What could be so interesting about leaning over a box with thousands of pieces waiting to be unturned, separated and eventually fitted into their places, only to be reseparated and boxed up again? The pleasure of putting jigsaw puzzles together lies in the process itself, which gives the brain a chance to do what it loves: finding meaning in seemingly disconnected pieces of information, and aesthetic satisfaction with the colorful designs coming together at a glance. The brain’s reward system loves it when little pieces fit together. For children, puzzles of a size that suits the patience of their reward system are a great stimulus for attention, self-esteem and self-sufficiency.

In addition, practicing with colored pieces of cardboard in subtly different shapes is excellent training for the brain’s spatial and visual memory skills. When I got to the hardest part of the puzzle, the almost identical piece where only the shape of the pieces matters, I discovered that after two months my brain had become adept at looking at loose pieces and knowing where they fit together. What to my family looked like identical pieces are now, to my eyes, different shapes with the right address.

Today is the day to put the last pieces together, appreciate the work completed and then put it away, anticipating the pleasure of one day putting it back together again. My announcement of the table’s imminent return to family use, however, is not greeted with the cries of “at last!” that I had expected. I thought my siege of the table was bothering them more than it actually was. Or they’re all so shocked by my indifference to the prospect of dismantling the puzzle that they’d rather leave it alive for a few more days…

Originally published in Folha de São Paulo on March, 2007.

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