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Science & Technology

Study Pits Head Strength Of Crossworders And Scrabblers

WADE GOODWYN, HOST:

Don't pick up your pencil and put on your thinking cap because it is definitely not time for the puzzle. But it is time for a new scientific study about puzzles. Researchers recently investigated the cognitive abilities of world-class crossword puzzle champions and elite Scrabble competitors. Michael Toma was one of those researches. He's a PhD student of cognitive psychology at Claremont Graduate University. He joins us from beautiful Las Vegas. Hello, Michael.

MICHAEL TOMA: Hi, Wade. Thanks for having me.

GOODWYN: First off, you were not just looking at, you know, your aunt or uncle who's pretty good at Scrabble or the weekly crossword. You were looking at best of the best.

TOMA: That is correct. Yes. About the top seven percent of all national competitors.

GOODWYN: You compared the cognitive skills of Scrabble and crossword champs to people with similar SAT scores - academically similar. And you found the puzzlers were a lot better cognitively?

TOMA: Correct. Namely in the domains of working memory capacity compared to this very academically achieving control group. It was hypothesized that there was going to be differences. But we had no idea how big these differences actually were going to be. And they ended up being very big.

GOODWYN: You found that Scrabble champs are particularly good at anagramming. Listeners of this show know that that's an important skill if you play our on-air puzzle with Will Shortz. Does this suggest that if you want to practice for an on-air puzzle, you should be Scrabble-ing and not crossword-ing?

TOMA: (Laughter). I think the domains require a lot of different strategies. One of the most frequently reported skills that crossword experts reported was this notion of mental flexibility.

GOODWYN: Mental flexibility - tell me about that.

TOMA: So mental flexibility is this cognitive process where we hold multiple concepts within our head and simultaneously switch among these concepts. So if you think about it in terms of crossword puzzling where you receiver a clue and you think of three or four things that that clue might reference, you're switching among those items that relate to the clue and then relying on what is called mental flexibility.

GOODWYN: Well, I'm a Scrabbler. I'm not a crossworder. When it comes to the two, is there any elitism? Do the Scrabblers think of themselves superior athletes to crossworders or vice versa?

TOMA: Well, you know, surprisingly there's actually a lot of overlap. There are Scrabblers that do crossword puzzles and vice versa. I don't believe there is any, quote-unquote, "butting of heads." The experts that I've talked to, they seem to have respect for each other's domains, which is good.

GOODWYN: Well, that's too bad. We need to introduce some smack talking.

TOMA: (Laughter).

GOODWYN: Michael Toma is a PhD student of cognitive psychology at Claremont Graduate University. Thanks, Michael.

TOMA: Thanks, Wade. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.