V.com weekend vote: Other than music, what is your favorite brain challenge?

November 13, 2020, 6:47 PM · Every time someone describes making music as a sort of flowery, right-brained diversion, I have to laugh a little. Sure, it can be that, but producing music also is quite mathematical and complex. Scientists point to instrumental music as the one activity that uses just about every region of the brain, which makes it such an important part of education.


On a more personal level, I've noticed that practitioners of music, in their spare time, also tend toward endeavors that challenge the linquistic, mathematical, and analytical parts of the brain, like word games, cards, puzzles and even crafting (ever tried to follow a knitting pattern?). In fact, according to the Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness newsletter, “Knitting and other creative crafting activities require the use of multiple parts of the brain, which may help keep you sharp.” Evidently, our nervous systems have the ability to create new connections and patterns throughout our lives, helping to generate new brain cells.

Sounds a little like music, eh?

Then there’s chess. English novelist A.S. Byatt wrote that prodigies are found most often in three fields: chess, mathematics, and music. All three depend upon an intuitive grasp of complex relationships. V.commer Diana Skinner, who suggested this vote, said that her musician father has become veritably consumed with this strategy game in retirement -- and he’s also a daily devotee of the NY Times crossword. It would be tough for him to pick a favorite!

But picking a favorite is exactly what we’re asking you to do in this weekend’s vote.

Please choose the answer that best corresponds to the brain challenge you are most passionate about. Then provide specifics in the comments section. And if you don’t partake of the options we’ve mentioned, please select “other” and then tell us your story in the comments section. It would be of particular interest to note when your passion for the activity began and if you have a close second on the list. Note: While most v.comers are undoubtedly voracious readers, we’re looking for activities that fall more in the brain-teaser category.

What brain challenge, other than music, are you most passionate about?


November 14, 2020 at 04:04 AM · Writing stories and cooking.

November 14, 2020 at 04:59 AM · I'm really enjoying playing online Scrabble with an out-of-state friend. And I tell myself it's helping organize my brain.

November 14, 2020 at 07:39 AM · Actually I wasn’t thinking about scrabble when I voted for crafts, but that’s probably more appropriate, as I don’t get time for crafts at the moment, but I always find time for a spot of Words with Friends.

Setting up for glass bead making at home I haven’t got around to yet, but I can highly recommend it as a “Zen” activity, as my glass work teacher put it. Focussing for several hours at a slowly rotating molten bead, full of swirling, ever changing colours can take your mind away from the world. That’s actually one of the reasons I gave it a go, apart from finding playing with melting glass fascinating in general.

My organist mother, far more musically talented than I , but who would never have dared describe herself as artistic, was very obsessive about word puzzles

Apparently there are a lots of “doctors orchestras “., it seems that scientific and musical interests/talents go together?

November 14, 2020 at 10:35 AM · I do crosswords quite often, especially recently as injuries have kept me from playing music. I've gotten to the point where I do crosswords in pen, and only do Friday through Sunday crosswords most weeks because Monday through Thursday are too easy. I also consider cooking to be an important hobby.

Prior to my recent series of injuries, the thing other than music that took up a lot of my free time was soccer, which is arguably the most intellectually engaging of team sports because it puts such heavy emphasis on reading the game and making independent decisions. (Interestingly, there have been a number of chess grandmasters who also played professional soccer!) I played competitively up through college level, definitely considered myself to be a "student of the game," and am still interested in coaching in the future. But I haven't played since 2017, due to the same injuries that are limiting my viola playing: a left shoulder injured helping family with home repairs after Hurricane Harvey, aggravated by playing viola, and most recently re-injured in a car accident.

But for the most part, music seems to have replaced other brain challenges!

I was most passionate about chess when I was younger, but starting in my teens, music started to displace chess: first piano, then euphonium and trombone, then composing, then violin and viola. I played my last chess tournament when I was 14 and completely stopped playing, briefly returned to casual playing in my high school's chess club when I was 17, played occasionally through college, and then stopped playing again after I graduated. I played online for a few months in my late 20s, but have played exactly two games since 2012. I bought a high-quality tournament chess set in 2015 or 2016, intending to start playing again, but haven't really had the chance.

The same goes for other strategy games, which fell by the wayside in my mid-20s as I became much more serious about playing viola. I played bridge in high school, and played Diplomacy every three or four weeks for most of college.

In fact, playing viola even got to the point of causing me to stop composing. After I started getting into auditioned orchestras and playing more difficult repertoire, I no longer really had the time or brain space to continue composing, and the new musical ideas dried up almost completely. I've made a few efforts to resume, but haven't been able to do more than revise a few older pieces.

November 14, 2020 at 03:42 PM · I am an avid knitter, so I chose 'other'. But I love playing Sudoku and doing a crossword every day. I'd rather be playing music than anything though.

November 14, 2020 at 03:45 PM · It seems that you know me! You listed all the things I love to do! Have you been in my brain? Please ask for permission next time! I love anything mathematical. I was a math teacher in high school for many years so that explains that. And in college, I took every linguistic course I could get my hands on. They tried to get me to be a linguistic major, but no. I do love any challenge with words to this day, especially a good pun or play on words. So many of my friends who work with me now in opera are master knitters!

My favorite game however, is Romi which I play on the computer all the time. It keeps the whole mathematical part of my brain engaged and active. I play against the computer. The challenge is wonderful. Not a day goes by when I haven't played that game numerous times no matter how busy I am. But no question about it, music is my favorite #1 brain challenge.

November 14, 2020 at 04:21 PM · studying languages;

fantasy: attending chamber music workshops in Germany, Austria, France or Italy

November 14, 2020 at 04:43 PM · Besides crossword puzzles and unscramble I love playing solitaire. I’m also a visual artist with an mfa in painting which is very much like playing my violin, same problems to solve...the colors are like musical notes harmonizing together or becoming dissonant!

November 14, 2020 at 07:00 PM · For the past few years, I have been designing and executing a small quilt that is supposed to convey Beethoven's Opus 59 No. 3 final movement. It's all the things Suzanne listed. It has both artistic and engineering aspects--studying Beethoven's music in detail and figuring out how to render it in cloth and beads--whether faithfully or abstractly.

November 14, 2020 at 07:02 PM · Although I occasionally have enjoyed crossword puzzles, moderately easy sudoku, and solitaire, in 2016, I took up Zentangle drawing because I was looking for something portable that I could do in a chair. I think it must activate many of the same places in my brain that practicing does, because I find it almost as satisfying.

I should say that practicing covers a LOT of different activities, and the parts of it that I really enjoy are figuring out fingerings that are both musical and that support the technical demands of a passage, figuring out bowings that are musical, decoding rhythms (I started violin relatively late and was not good at rhythm (or having an inner pulse) as an adult, so I have had to work very hard in order to be up to snuff as an adult professional. When an esteemed colleague referred to me as a rhythm queen a couple of years ago, I was quite surprised, and honored!

If anyone is interested in learning more about Zentangle, two websites I would recommend are Zentangle.com which is the official Zentangle website, and Linda Farmer's TanglePatterns.com - to me, it is the best all-around website for learning about Zentangle. It also has a huge library of tangles (or patterns), and strings (which are the larger patterns that you fill with tangles). Zentangle originally was designed to be done with black ink on a white 3.5" square tile of good quality paper. It it non-representative, and designed so that a tile may be completed in about 15 minutes. (I nearly ALWAYS take longer). The name ZEN-tangle is appropriate because it is great for getting you into the Zen of drawing.

November 14, 2020 at 07:10 PM · I forgot to mention: I discovered a mystery in how the Guarneri plays it (Opus 59 No 3, final movement) in the recording I'm studying as opposed to how it is written and how, for example, the Tokyo SQ plays it in measures 415-418: in measure 415, instead of playing all those repeated notes, the 2nd violin comes back to the melody it was playing. It's really beautiful but put me into a quandary: carry out the design as John Dalley did it, or stay faithful to Beethoven? In the end, I stuck with Beethoven--in the scale of my piece, that touch would have been too subtle. But it really bugged me for days.

November 14, 2020 at 09:32 PM · I selected other. I find language learning to be an excellent way to stretch the grey matter. Welsh in particular, difficult yet fun!

November 14, 2020 at 09:40 PM · Scrabble -- you combine analytical and math skills while coming up with the right words in the right places to win the game.

November 14, 2020 at 10:14 PM · None of the options presented. I've become an autodidact student of American history. Reading the works of the best professors in the best universities in the English speaking world. (My Japanese is conversational only, not academic.)

This gets the synapses firing, creating new neural paths, creating new insights, forming more questions yet to be answered.

November 14, 2020 at 10:20 PM · I was a tournament chess player for over fifteen years and even have a small role in the chess notation we use today (1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nc6 instead of 1. P-K4 P-K4 2. N-KB3 N-QB3) and have met several chess players who played a bowed string and vice versa. A good violinist is going to be doing several things simultaneously and routinely plan passages (fingering and shifts, etc.) and chessplayers are known for planning and pattern recognition.

As a former computer programmer with a good feel for math, I have written my share of scripts and web pages to support my music notation system (I bought it, didn't write it).

November 14, 2020 at 11:27 PM · Reading in a variety of subjects ranging from science to history. I like watching Jeopardy - r.i.p. Alex Trebeck. I often do quite well at home - when I’m not suffering from “tip of the tongue-itis”!

November 15, 2020 at 03:06 AM · I started with crossword puzzles and then added sudokus. The next challenge was adding the New York Times acrostic. And of course, there is Word with Friends. During this time of "social distancing" and no concerts.museums/etc., it is great to have activities that make you think.

November 15, 2020 at 06:40 AM · Online Scrabble(Lexulous) has become my latest addiction, and you can have several games going at once, all over the world. My latest favorite number game is KENKEN, kind of like Sudoku on steroids. But several people have mentioned the challenge and joy of practicing, and for me, nothing beats spending an hour on a movement of a Bach suite, deciphering the counterpoint, feeling the harmonies, seeking the elusive intonation nirvana, trying to ‘sing’ with a bow, and reveling in the genius of Bach.

November 15, 2020 at 07:53 PM · I used to be good at chess, best player on the band bus, until I decided it was a waste of mental energy. I have more interest than talent in languages, Spanish and German. I started as a math major, but the mysteries of integral calculus and differential equations was my stopping point. I think music is more analogous to geometry than the numerical side of math. Designing fingerings and bowings is like solving puzzles.

November 16, 2020 at 01:29 AM · I'm a crafty one myself. Lately I've been sewing (a few hundred masks!) but if it's not that, it's knitting, crocheting, beading, drawing, quilting -- whatever catches my current attention. My daughter just started felting - I confess that I'm mystified by that craft, but willing to learn!

November 16, 2020 at 02:26 AM · I chose “other”. I read a lot, but I’ll admit I probably watch too much television. I find a lot of problem solving and ideas come through physical movement, so I take long walks every day, or ride my bicycle for a few miles, and I indulge in free yoga classes online, “Yoga with Adriene”. I wrote and illustrated a silly little book for my grandchildren. My seven-year-old granddaughter looked at the drawings, and said, “Well, he tried.” Darn critics.

November 16, 2020 at 03:19 AM · I have absolutely loved reading these wonderful and creative comments! The reaction to Michael's drawings from his seven-year-old granddaughter is priceless!

November 16, 2020 at 04:12 PM · John and I complete two code-words and two cryptic crosswords together every day, as well as a Target, where you make words from a nine-letter word and they all have to contain a designated letter.

Target is a really useful puzzle, because when you're waiting in a queue, it occupies the mind - it stops me feeling as impatient as otherwise I would. I also can get myself off to sleep by seeing how many words I can make out of words like 'restful' or 'slumber'.

This year we have taken up Scrabble again with a vengeance, and currently play two games each evening.

I love words as much as I love music, really - that is why a good song is unbeatable.

November 17, 2020 at 01:15 AM · I played a lot of chess at school, and chess is probably one activity I'd still do (though these days it's reading a chess column). But I'd like to remind folk of what one composer, of whom some of you MIGHT have heard, did to relax, that has not been mentioned here (I got quite addicted to it myself when a teenager at the Bernard Robinson music camp): Billiards. Who on earth could this composer have been? Answers please on a postcard. The first correct answer received will be

November 17, 2020 at 01:35 AM · the first correct answer received. (Clue: In his younger days, he was also fascinated by arithmetic).

November 17, 2020 at 12:46 PM · Mr Bill Palmer has sent me the correct answer in an email. Unfortunately, some years ago, I found out, to my cost, that sending an email is not the same as sending a letter (or postcard) by email (you have to scan the document and send the scan as an attachment to your email), so, sadly, I must disallow Mr Palmer's entry.

The competition (unlike my claim for refund of my deposit on double glazing, which would not be met because the firm has almost certainly evaporated and gone into liquidation - not my pun, but a rare example of the late Joseph Conrad's capacity to pun - the other example, the difference between an underwriter and an undertaker is in the same book. Whether it got into the libretto of the late Richard Rodney Bennett's opera of the same name, I don't know) is still open.

November 17, 2020 at 07:26 PM · I’ve been playing bridge for ten years and love to feel the wheels of my brain turning. I don’t like the extreme competition of playing at bridge clubs, but prefer what’s called party bridge with friends. Like chamber music, I seek out people with the same mindset. It’s ok to ask questions, and humor is always welcome. Bridge allows a post-mortem after each hand to discuss what went wrong. It teaches me how to say things diplomatically. During Covid, I’ve discovered BridgeBase.com, and I’m playing twice a week with my sister, who lives in a different city. It’s a great way for us to connect.

November 19, 2020 at 10:24 PM · My other passion is flying. Aside from the sheer beauty of it, there is a lot of knowledge manipulation involved: the physics of meteorology and of how an airplane flies (and how it sometimes doesn't!), the geometry of navigation, and a good helping of mathematics holding it all together. A few years ago I got my instrument rating; navigation becomes even more abstract when you're in the middle of a cloud with nothing but the dials in front of you to tell you what's going on. Nothing else (aside from playing music) makes my mind feel so alive.

Oh, and I've been making my living as a computer programmer for 50 years. That's why I don't go in for puzzles that much - my job consists of solving puzzles all day long.

November 20, 2020 at 07:36 PM · Hard to name a favorite. Meteorology, photography, fitness, writing, national issues -- these are just five of the subjects I've found fascinating since childhood and adolescence.

Languages also interest me. Never studied Italian or German but picked up more of them than the typical violin major does -- thanks to the Italian and German operas I studied on my own time while I was still in school. Not the ideal way to learn languages -- and some word forms and usages have changed since the days of Verdi and Wagner. Never studied Spanish, either; but with simple written statements, I can make the jump from Italian to Spanish and get the gist of what the writer is saying. The two languages are very similar.

Math was my hard subject in school, although I believe the way it was being taught was a factor here. Since then, I've had fun exploring it and increasing my math skills via clear, well-written instruction books.

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