Scrabble research could lead to advances in brain rehabilitation

University of Calgary researchers say years of playing Scrabble can cause people to use a different part of their brain to recognize words, and that could change how clinicians deal with traumatic brain injuries.

Calgary researchers say Scrabble players use their brains very differently

Sophia Van Hees prepares the electroencephalography cap to monitor the electrical activity in the brain of a study participant. (Mark Skogen/Skogen Photography)

The word "muzjiks" demonstrates the best combination of letters a Scrabble player can hope for to start off a game, racking up 128 points in the opening move. 

It's not important what the word means (a muzjik happens to be a Russian peasant in the early 20th century) — all that matters is it is, in fact, a word. Period. 

Scrabble aficionados spend years memorizing obscure words, so a team of researchers from the University of Calgary rounded them up to study what effect that kind of brain training has on the mind.

Twenty Scrabble experts, along with 20 non-Scrabble players, were put in front of a computer that displayed jumbles of letters and asked to identify, as quickly as they could, which letter jumbles constituted real English words.

What the researchers found was that not only were Scrabble experts much faster and more accurate, but they also used a different part of their brain for the exercise. 

"So typically, for non-experts, we're recruiting the language area of our brain," said Sophia Van Hees, a post-doctoral fellow working on the study.

"Whereas when we do the task with Scrabble experts, they're not really using the language network like average people," she said.

"They're actually recruiting areas that are more associated with visual processing and working memory. So they're doing the task quite differently."

Van Hees explains the study wherein the participant is asked to identify English words from letter jumbles. (Mark Skogen/Skogen Photography)

Van Hees says this highlights the flexibility of the brain and suggests that we can use different areas of the brain to do the same task. She's hopeful these findings could help people who have suffered traumatic physical injury or even brain diseases such as Alzheimer's.

"So, for example, if someone has a stroke and they damage some of those language areas that non-experts are using for the task perhaps, with training, we can tap into these alternative areas that these Scrabble players are using to do the same task."

Van Hees said the research is still years away from the point that it would be handed over to clinicians, but there is that potential.

The next stage of their research will look at another control group where participants will undergo moderate levels of language training before undergoing the research group's tests.

Inspiration in sleepless nights

Dr. Peter Sargious, an internal medicine physician who teaches at the U of C, is leading the Scrabble research team along with researchers Penny Pexman and Andrea Protzner. Sargious said he was inspired to pursue this research after decades of dabbling in the game himself. 

What started as a way to pass time between calls back to the hospital became an obsession after he joined the Calgary Scrabble Group in 2001, and began engaging competitively. 

"During my peak performance years, it was the experience of what psychologists call 'flow' — that's where the potential for addiction comes in," he said. 
Jeff Fleetham and Randall Thomas warm up ahead of the Canadian Open Scrabble tournament in Calgary Wednesday. (Peter Sargious/Calgary Scrabble Club)

But his interest in the game has returned to one of curiosity, where he searches for ways that Scrabble training can be better understood from a psychological standpoint. He hopes that understanding how Scrabble training alters how the brain works could even have implications for how professionals such as doctors are taught their trades. 

"I think this work touches on an issue that is relevant to how humans relate to each other in a changing world.  Books are losing their physical form and games like Scrabble are moving from boards to apps. In both and all cases, words still matter," Sargious said. 

Calgary is hosting the 2nd Annual Canadian Open Scrabble tournament from Wednesday to Sunday at the Executive Royal Hotel.