When I went to my favorite board game store last week, it had several shelves filled with jigsaw puzzles. I asked one of the workers if that many puzzles had always been there and I never noticed, or if they boosted their inventory. She told me it was the latter because the store is selling more of them than ever. One of my favorite stores in downtown Shakopee, Ramble On Records, is also selling them. They’re my type too — rock and roll themed puzzles.

Several Facebook friends recently posted pictures of their completed puzzles. Putting them together became trendy during the COVID-19 lockdown, which is one of the positives to come out of the pandemic. Couples and families were spending time together with puzzles, and it turned out to be beneficial. The activity provides family bonding time and helps improve brain functions.

Many puzzle manufacturers and retailers saw sales jump 300 to 400 percent during the pandemic compared to the previous year, according to news reports. One company, Piecework Puzzles, saw its sales skyrocket 910 percent from February to March of last year, according to the media company Bloomberg. Some sellers temporarily ran out of puzzles last year when lockdown measures first went into effect.

I’ve enjoyed putting puzzles together since I was a kid. I had a card table in my bedroom where I could sit by myself for hours, listen to music, and work on a puzzle. I admire couples who can do them together. For better or for worse, I’m a proprietary person and as a result, don’t work well on puzzles with others. But I do like doing them in parallel with someone assembling their own, especially if it’s a competition to see who gets done first.

This isn’t the first time in history that puzzles have emerged as a popular pastime. The Geneva Historical Society in New York says the first puzzle craze took place from 1907 to 1911 as puzzles shifted from being geared toward children to being designed for adults. According to the society, “Puzzles became extremely popular among high society as a must-have at vacation homes and house parties.” President Theodore Roosevelt, Czar Nicholas II of Russia, and financier J.P. Morgan were said to be puzzlers.

The second craze happened during the Great Depression years of 1932-1933, the Society says. Manufacturers were cranking out 10 million puzzles each week. We’re now in the midst of the third time period when there’s a high demand for puzzles. It’s not surprising that they’re popular at times when people are strapped for cash or homebound. They’re fairly inexpensive to buy, can keep people consumed for hours at home, and can be exchanged with other puzzlers.

Jigsaw puzzles are credited with relieving stress and stimulating the brain, using both the left and right sides of the brain simultaneously. Studies also say they help build better spatial skills, boost cognitive abilities, and improve memory retention.

“The act of putting the pieces of a puzzle together requires concentration and improves short-term memory and problem solving,” according to a Baylor College of Medicine blog. “Using the puzzle as an exercise of the mind can spark imagination and increase both your creativity and productivity.”

Other types of puzzles are good for the brain, too. Research points to crossword puzzles and my favorite, sudoku, also providing mental benefits and offering a healthy escape during the pandemic, or any other time.

If you haven’t done a puzzle in a while, consider giving one a try. You might find it therapeutic. I do.

Brett Martin is a guest columnist who’s been a Shakopee resident for over 15 years.

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