Why solving puzzles feels so good during the pandemic

Doctoral student Stacy Costa says puzzles create a sense of order in times of chaos and can even have real-world applications


Stacy Costa isn’t surprised that hundreds of thousands of people all over the world have taken up jigsaw puzzles during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Costa is a puzzle designer and PhD student at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, where one of her areas of research is puzzles and the brain. She’s giving a 20-minute lecture on Friday (May 8), 11 am, as part of OISE’s innovative web series, the Stay At Home Club.

“We’re living in this world of chaos right now, and puzzles make you feel like they’re in control of things,” says Costa over the phone. “People are able to take that chaos and create order. They can’t deal with the chaos around them, but it’s satisfying to deal with something controllable right in front of them.”

Costa says the adult colouring book trend of a few years ago was similar. 

“People were doing that to calm themselves down and give themselves some sort of mental release,” she says. “I think jigsaw puzzles have taken over that.”

Costa’s love of puzzles goes back to childhood, when, as an only child, she would spend hours on them.

“My parents were always open to giving me challenges,” she says. “I remember I had these cool Disney 3D puzzles. One was of The Little Mermaid. I remember creating it and putting it on my wall. It was solitary but very satisfying to do.”

In her first year at the University of Toronto, she took a seminar course in puzzles – out of interest, but also, she laughs, because she thought it would be an easy A. 

One assignment was to either write a 10-page essay or create a puzzle.

“I wanted to be resourceful, so I made my own puzzle, and the professor was blown away by it,” says Costa, who got her BA in anthropology and semiotics. “I took a Rubik’s Cube, and instead of colours on the squares, I put mathematical combinations on them. The prof could tell I enjoyed doing it. He took me under his wing, and I started getting into puzzle-making and understanding puzzles in general.”

Puzzles are hardly a waste of time. They have real-world applications.

In her TEDxUofT talk last year, Puzzles: More Than Just A Pastime, Costa included info on the relationship between puzzles and Alzheimer’s, and, even more impressive, how puzzle solvers responded to challenges in AIDS research.

On the site Fold.it, puzzle solvers are currently trying to find patterns about COVID-19 and genome sequencing that could help produce antiviral drugs.

Even looking at contact tracing of people exposed to the virus can be approached like a puzzle. 

“Solving puzzles is tied into things like mysteries and whodunnits,” says Costa, who currently enjoys doing Sudoko and Kakuro. “Puzzles keep you on the edge of your seat. Where is the virus travelling? How did it get from one place to another?  We want to know. We want that mystery solved – and in this case, it could save lives.”

@glennsumi

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