How jigsaw puzzles can help improve your dexterity

Dexterity is what separates us from other species. Our fine motor skills allow us to complete tasks that are not possible to any other animals except some higher primates. While the level of dexterity varies from person to person, there are a number of exercises that can help improve your dexterity if desired. Some contemporary computer games are even designed to improve dexterity. Unfortunately, most of the people who feel diminished dexterity are ageing and suffering from one of many diseases linked to the old age. Many of them did not enter the computer age. Fortunately, there are some forgotten tools that work very well in improving dexterity in older people, such as good old jigsaw puzzles.

Jigsaw puzzles can help to improve your dexterity
Jigsaws are great fun to do with the family

Why would you need to improve your dexterity?

Dexterity means coordination between the small muscles in the fingers and the eyes. The whole process actually starts in the primary motor cortex of our brain and enables us to have such complex motor skills. Dexterity and what we can do with it is what makes humans, and some other primates, so advanced in evolution. But, dexterity can be lost or impaired for many reasons: injury, stroke, illness, developmental disability, problems with brain, nerves, muscles, spinal cord or joints can affect our fine motor skills, and diminish our ability to control the movement of our hands. This loss can be devastating and can deprive a person of self-sufficiency and the ability to live a normal life.

People with arthritis and similar issues need dexterity exercises to maintain the mobility of their hands and to continue being independent.

Even some healthy people would like better dexterity, such as musicians and surgeons. For them, having perfect fine motor skills and perfect hand-eye coordination means better performance, and in case of surgeons, well-being of their patients.

Training for better dexterity

Scientists agree that training is crucial for the recovery of dexterity after most types of injury that affects motor skills, particularly after such brain illnesses as stroke. Resistance training is part of the regular rehabilitation of stroke patients.

It has been well established by the scientific community that playing video games can significantly improve dexterity. But, video games are solitary pursuits and most people who are recovering their dexterity after a serious disease need to heal on many levels, besides working on their muscles. Social interaction is a big part of the healing process.

Puzzles and dexterity

We take our dexterity for granted, until we lose it or it is diminished. Even simple injury which makes our fingers swollen makes it impossible to pick up small puzzle pieces. Try to imagine how it feels for a person with arthritis, or someone recovering from stroke. Simple movements, such as picking up puzzle pieces, turning them over to see where they fit and fitting them in their right place can be quite a challenge.

What makes puzzles so eminently suitable for dexterity training is that they can be played at all levels. To help children improve dexterity, you can choose one of many puzzles that are designed for their particular age in mind. To assist stroke victims with their recovery, you can start with large size puzzles at that are easier to pick up at the beginning of the recovery process, and move to more complex puzzles as their dexterity improves.

Puzzles or computer games?

While the world is turning digital and we are looking for solutions to all our problems on the internet, there are many people who find interaction with computers lonely and sad. The latest computer games might be perfectly designed to improve hand-eye coordination, but even if you have a partner, that partner might be miles away, in front of another computer. Playing puzzles can be done alone, but is much more fun when few people play together, tackling different corners of the board, solving the problem together and competing with each other.

The social aspect of playing puzzles is as important as improving dexterity for stroke patients. They have suffered from a brain damage, which destroyed some parts of their brain and wiped out simple skills such as using their hands. Re-learning such skills requires more than just teaching muscles to do certain jobs. It also requires recovery of their self-awareness, independence, place in the society and the belief that they will recover completely and resume their normal lives. Depression is very common in people with diminished physical capacity and loss of independence. Completing a game of puzzles can be a great way for them to accomplish something they could not do a short time ago.

Brain plasticity

For a long time, medical practitioners believed that once a part of the brain is damaged, all function linked to that particular part is lost. In the last few decades, this belief has been completely reversed, with the discovery of brain plasticity. The brain plasticity refers to the ability of our nervous system to adapt to the damage and to change its structure in order to recover lost functionality.

Playing games such as puzzles assists brain in re-learning functions that are lost after the stroke. Puzzles not only involve manual dexterity, but focus, decision-making, patience and persistence. By repeatedly playing puzzles, brain plasticity is induced and lost functionality is recovered in time.

New kinds of puzzles

While jigsaw puzzles lost some of their popularity due to the prevalence of computer games, new three-dimensional puzzles, puzzles with customized photos and pieces of all sizes and complexity put puzzles back to where they belong: into our homes. They are great fun, can be very challenging and can keep kids sufficiently entertained during long winter evenings. Even small children can play, and not only improve their motor skills but learn a bit of geography, biology or anything else the latest puzzle has to show. And for old people, participating in playing with different generations, in the atmosphere of love and competition, means much more than just recovery from the illness. It gives them hope and reason for living.

Photo credit: Jigsawing via photopin (license)

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