According to this article, “Between 50% and 85% of patients with chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) report memory and concentration difficulties that contribute considerably to social and occupational dysfunction.” According to CFSers, we got the brain fog. Yes, brain fog — the reason why it took me five minutes to remember the word “cognitive” just now so I could Google that article, and the reason why I attempted to pause my TV with my iPhone the other day. We know it, we laugh at it, but we don’t like it much, especially…
Seriously, I just completely lost my train of thought. Especially what?
Well, this post wasn’t intended to be a live demonstration of the symptom; let’s move on. In a previous post I talked about a chronically ill nerd’s way to get some exercise: play a game. As might be expected, I recommend the same when it comes to exercising the brain.
In my pantheon, there is only one place to go for crosswords: The New York Times. (British-style cryptics are also excellent, but the ruleset for solving them is more complicated, so when I say “crosswords” from now on, I’m referring to the kind mainly found in American newspapers.) I’ve heard two complaints from people who resist trying the Times puzzle: first, that they don’t want to subscribe to the paper, and second, that it’s too hard.
These days, the first point is moot. Granted, you still have to pay, but you can do the Times crossword several different ways. There’s an iPhone app, which I haven’t tried. There’s a game for the Nintendo DS, which is excellent and I highly recommend it. You can buy books in a range of prices as well as difficulties (more on that in a bit), or you can subscribe online. For $40 a year, you get access not only to every daily puzzle and all the Sunday and bonus puzzles, but also to an archive reaching back to 1996. The online puzzles can be played with the free Across Lite software, or printed out if, like me, you still prefer filling in a paper grid with a pen or pencil.
As to difficulty, this is something of a myth. The Times crossword actually varies widely in difficulty, starting with easy on Monday and peaking with diabolical on Saturday. Thursdays have a gimmick or a twist of some kind. The Sunday puzzle is not the most difficult of the week, just the largest. Its difficulty lands in the Wednesday-Friday range and it always has a theme.
If you want to get started doing the Times puzzle, begin with Mondays. The puzzles are written by different people, but they are all edited by the incomparable Will Shortz. So there is a certain commonality of tone and vocabulary, not to mention answers you start to see crop up repeatedly. At this point you may get stuck more often than you’d like while you’re learning all this. Don’t give up, and don’t Google. When you can’t fill in one more clue, put the puzzle away; when you pick it up again, you will invariably find more to fill in. When you can really do no more, look up the answers. Repeat with a new Monday puzzle. You’ll start to get the hang of it, and then you can challenge yourself by moving to Tuesdays, and so on. And if you’re the type of puzzler who likes to look up the answers, that’s fine, but the reason I suggest resisting that temptation at first is because you will learn more if you focus on the process, and not the result. When you’ve gotten the hang of it a little more, then by all means return to Google. (My mother, who has done the puzzle for longer than I’m probably allowed to say, drilled it into my head that real solvers do not look up clues, which is about as close to a religion as I follow these days. However, I accept that there are deviations from the true faith.)
You may ask, why go to all this trouble when there are cheaper (or free) and easier puzzles to be had? If you like crosswords, you owe it to yourself to enjoy this “Golden Age,” as some puzzle constructors have called it, under Shortz’ editorship. The New York Times puzzle is simply and consistently the best around, so why feed your brain junk food when with a little effort, it can have haute cuisine? The method I described above is how I started, with half-finished Monday puzzles and a yen to go back to word searches. Now I can almost always finish Fridays, and often Saturdays as well. And if you want any more advice, you can’t do better than Shortz himself.
If word puzzles aren’t your thing, let’s move to the wealth of brainy games available for the DS. Much has been made of games like Brain Age and Big Brain Academy for keeping the mind sharp with tests and puzzles, and I enjoy them, but after a while they suffer from a lack of interesting context. The Professor Layton games (at right) are charming mysteries in which you encounter many different types of puzzles to suit all kinds of logical thinking, and are chock-full of entertaining characters and storylines. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and its sequels are more conventional mysteries with clues and evidence to consider before your courtroom appearances, done in a hilarious and endearing manga style. Scribblenauts is a brand-new puzzle game in which you write words (from a lexicon of 20,000) to summon objects and solve levels. All of these games are untimed and low stress — when you’re tired or frustrated, just close the DS until another time.
If you have an iPhone or iPod touch and prefer numbers to words, I’ve counted at least a dozen free sudoku apps, not to mention spin-off puzzle types like kakuro or kendoku. Since sudoku grids can be computer generated, I personally have never noticed a difference in “authors,” and would guess that the decision point among those apps is user-friendliness and a decent interface. You can also play for free on the web via these links.
The one good thing about brain fog is that the best way to combat it is fun. You can’t currently tear me away from Scribblenauts, and it’s just a nice bonus that I’m giving my mind a good workout. There are those times when I pick up a game, look at it for a while, and realize that there’s just no cutting through the fog today. It’s not discouraging or a letdown. Because the next time I pick up a Saturday puzzle, I’m going to nail it. And the fog will recede a little bit that day.