How Scrabble (or Words with Friends) Makes You SmarterIf you’re finding it impossible to teach your old dog a new trick, maybe it’s time that frisky Fido learned to play some Scrabble (or the popular Scrabble knockoff, Words with Friends). Then again, if you’re trying to teach your dog to play word games, perhaps it’s you who will best benefit from playing a little competitive Scrabble. Just because you may not be a kid anymore doesn’t necessarily mean that your brain is down for the count. Researchers at the University of Calgary have determined, through much study (and lots of Scrabble, and maybe more than a few bottles of wine — but that’s just a guess), that even old-timers can increase their general cognizance — in a way once thought impossible in fully developed adults — by playing Scrabble-type games.

On a hunch, the researchers figured that competitive Scrabble fiends enthusiasts likely get better the more they play. (As some wise joker from ages past once said, “Practice makes perfect.” It was probably Socrates or Jim Varney or somebody like that.) Since most people aren’t born with intrinsic Scrabble prowess and tiny fists clenched tight with lettered tiles, it probably doesn’t take some kind of academic genius to arrive at such a conclusion. (But the snobs like to remind me that I went to public school, so what do I know?)

Psychology professor Penny Pexman pauses, proclaiming: “The average literate adult relies on three components to process and read a word: sound, spelling, and meaning. When we studied the Scrabble players, we found that t is significant flexibility in the tools they use to read words and that it can include the orientation of the word as well.”

The study found that Scrabble players — the successful ones, anyway — are able to discern between real words and nonsense words 20 percent faster than their Scrabble-less peers. With 180,000 words in the Official Tournament and Club Word List, a lot of brain power is dedicated to absorbing the difference between, for instance, “OTARINE” (a word) and “XYWFROP” (not a word).

Study lead Ian Hargreaves says: “Scrabble players have honed their ability to recognize words such that they have actually changed the process of reading words. They have done this in two ways. First the Scrabble players showed less difference in the time it took to recognize a word as real when it was positioned vertically than they did for a horizontal word, whereas non-Scrabble players are much slower in reading vertically.”

The researchers were surprised to discover that patterns had a lot more to do with word selection than the meanings of the words themselves. Elaborates Hargreaves: “This is atypical. Usually the meaning of the word would have a bigger impact a person’s decision about whether or not it is a true word. This shows that one consequence of extensive Scrabble training is that Scrabble players don’t tend to emphasize what the words mean. Words are, most importantly, plays in a game.”

The study, How a hobby can shape cognition: visual word recognition in competitive Scrabble players, was published in Volume 40, Number 1 of Memory and Cognition.