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What Can Wordle Do for Our Brains?

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Feb. 10, 2022 — Forget morning coffee, stretches, or meditation. There’s a new way to kick-start your brain.

Jeanenne Ray, a book editor in Marin County, CA, tackles it first thing in the morning, while still lying in bed. It’s also the first on the to-do list of Shelly Groves, who owns a dog walking and pet sitting service in Avondale Estates, GA. That’s also the pattern of Todd Siesky, an Atlanta communications professional, but he knows to walk away if it gets too frustrating.

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The three are among the millions playing Wordle, the “it” puzzle/brain teaser of the moment. Created by software engineer Josh Wardle of Brooklyn, NY, for his partner during the pandemic, it’s now been sold to The New York Times, and initially will remain free.

For those who’ve never tested their brain power on Wordle, it’s simple but challenging. Players get six attempts to guess the five-letter word of the day. After plugging in a word as their first guess, they get feedback, with color coded blocks telling them if their chosen letters are correct and in the right position.

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Can It Help Brain Power?

Besides providing us with fresh fodder for bragging rights on social media, where players obsessively post their scores, can playing Wordle daily improve our memory and overall brain power?

Probably, say two neuroscientists who study the workings of the human brain, as long as frustration doesn’t undo the benefits.

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Michael Yassa, PhD, professor and director of the center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine, began playing Wordle in January.

“It activates our dopamine,” he says.

That’s the neurotransmitter linked with feeling pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation. “That can color your day in a positive way,” he says.

Playing the game also gets your problem-solving skills going, Yassa says.

Another benefit, he says, is the social interaction that naturally follows for most. When a player gets the answer in two or three tries, boasting on social media is common.

“We know that social interactions are good for our brain,” Yassa says.

When you interact with others, he says, there’s more release of dopamine, along with oxytocin, the so-called love hormone that rises during hugging and is linked with empathy, trust, and relationship-building.

Sharing results is usually a healthy competition, Yassa says. He compares results with his brother, who lives on the East Coast.

“I feel like I’ve bonded with my brother a lot more,” he says. As for wins, “we go back and forth,” with one winning one day, the other the next.

What about the claim from some experts that Wordle will create new brain synapses, needed for communication between cells, or will strengthen existing ones? There’s no study on Wordle and synapse-building that Yassa is aware of, but he says it makes sense that it would build or strengthen them.

“When you are engaging in a novel activity, you can create new synapses,” he says, and scientists know that’s part of the brain’s ongoing plasticity, the ability of the nervous system to change in response to stimuli, either internal or external.

But it’s not possible at this point so say how much synapse-building Wordle might do, Yassa says.

“Anything that causes a high level of engagement — something that engages memory, problem solving — is good for your brain, and will strengthen those processes in your brain,” says Earl Miller, PhD, professor of neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Your brain is like a muscle, and the more you use it the better it gets at doing things.”

But Yassa cautions it may take some time to see effects on memory. And occasional players may not see the same benefits as daily fans.

Word Puzzle Research

In a previous study, conducted well before Wordle debuted, researchers studied the links between word puzzle habits and 14 cognitive measures, such as memory and attention, in more than 19,000 adults, ages 50 to 93. Some never played word puzzles, while others did occasionally, frequently, or even more than once a day.

For each measure tested, those who never did word puzzles or did them only occasionally performed more poorly than virtually every other group, the researchers found.

Players’ Experiences

Many players say Wordle is just plain fun. “Having a puzzle that is rooted in words is both fascinating and enjoyable,” Siesky says. There is a logic to all puzzles, he says, including Wordle’s. That’s part of the attraction for him.

“I feel like it’s good for my 58-year-old brain,” Groves says, although she doesn’t think she’s been doing it long enough to see improvements in memory. It hasn’t changed her social media use one way or the other. She sees sharing results there as ”a humble brag or perhaps a humbling moment” for those times when it takes all six guesses to get the word, or, shudder, if you don’t get it at all.

Ray doesn’t compete with anyone, but gives feedback when she sees results on social media. A former high school classmate got the answer in two tries the other day, she says, and that led to some congratulations and pleasant conversation.

Players often trade tips, with a little good-natured ribbing as well as advice. For instance, while “adieu” is a favorite start word for some, due to all the vowels, it has been scorned by others.

In January, British players were not pleased, pointing out that “favor,” the word of the day, was ”Americanized” and is actually spelled “favour.”

Sharing the best tips is apparently expected. Tweeted one player recently: “Just told my bf that I always start with GRAVY on wordle and he is absolutely furious with me.”

Frustration Factor

Some days are more difficult than others, of course. “If I get really frustrated, I force myself to think about patterns and language,” Siesky says. If that doesn’t work, he takes a break.

Yassa acknowledges that frustration factor, as he’s experienced it firsthand. He says he has never solved the puzzle in one try. “I’ve gotten it in two tries twice, and a lot more in four tries. One took six,” he laughs, ”and that one almost gave me a heart attack.”

If it’s too stressful, it might not be your game, Yassa and Miller agree. “Stress is counterproductive to your health,” Miller says. Momentary frustration with Wordle is OK, but if it’s really stressing you out, ”find something you are better at,” he suggests.

“It’s trial and effort,” Yassa says about the best choices for people. If Wordle isn’t your thing, maybe you’re better at numbers than words, Yassa says, and should try a numbers-based puzzle like Sudoku. That is one, Yassa admits, that he avoids.

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