The Neurology of Wordle
By now, you’ve likely heard of Wordle. Maybe you’ve seen the strange green and grey squares in cryptic tweets. Or heard friends and family talk about how they got Wordle in two, or three, or six tries. Even though the initial fervor has quieted down, the amount of people playing every day continues to grow.
What began as a love note to software engineer Josh Wardle exploded into a global phenomenon in less than three months. The game became so popular, the New York Times reportedly bought it for over seven figures. So what is Wordle? And why are so many people still obsessed with it?
The Science of Simplicity
The game itself is fairly simple. You have six attempts to guess a five letter word. As you make your guesses, the letters flip in three different colors—green, yellow, and grey—indicating if the letter is in the word, in the wrong place, or not present at all—respectively. While this may seem fairly straightforward, the game is highly appealing from a neurological perspective.
To start, the layout doubles down on the idea of simplicity. There are no flashing ads. No banners or announcements or links pulling your attention away from the game itself. Just a greyscale keyboard and six rows of five blocks. This may not seem important, but from a neurological perspective the clean screen is a breath of fresh air for your brain.
Studies suggest that constantly ignoring popups, links, and notifications negatively impacts the ability to focus and reduces short-term memory retention. The more time you spend on busy websites with flashing ads and busy screens, the harder it may be to pay attention to tasks, which diminishes your overall productivity. By removing these distractions, Wordle is helping you focus on the singular task at hand: solving the puzzle.
In addition, by not having to categorize unnecessary details like ads or pop-ups, your brain doesn’t have to work as hard to focus. Which helps your mental energy levels. You feel good when you’re solving the puzzle and refreshed when you’re done. It isn’t taking more than it’s giving, and when it comes to brain power, that’s incredibly valuable.
Your Brain On Puzzles
There are several core cognitive functions you’re exercising when you attempt to solve a puzzle. With crosswords, Sudoku, or other word and number games, you’re using your working memory, logical deduction, sustained focus, and information processing—just to name to name a few. With word games, specifically, you’re also improving your lexical decision making skills and activate the verbal areas of your brain.
Jigsaw puzzles work on your visual-spatial skills, category formation, and pattern recognition. They help you identify patterns, which improves your visual-spatial reasoning and short-term memory, while simultaneously strengthening your ability to concentrate and problem solve. Strategy games like Chess or Battleship exercises and boosts your entire prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for planning, problem solving, self-control, and critical thinking. And no matter what type of puzzle you choose, consistently engaging in these brain-focused activities promotes constant neural growth and development, or a process known as neuroplasticity.
While many puzzles have cross-over when it comes to utilizing your brain power, Wordle encompasses almost every aspect of each. It uses language, logic, and patterns to solve the word. You know the word will be five letters and once you put your initial guess, you can narrow down your next guess based on the pattern of letters. While having a broad lexicon can help, it isn’t necessary to guess the word. If you happen to choose a word that isn’t recognized, it won’t allow you to enter the guess, so the game also helps you learn as you play. This multi-level approach makes in an excellent whole brain workout that’s extremely beneficial for your overall brain health.
The Power of Anticipation
At some point in your life, you’ve experienced the power of anticipation. The excitement of waiting to open a gift. Standing in line to see a movie or concert. Saving up to buy a treasured item. It’s a common misconception to attribute the rush of happiness you feel to that moment when you finally reach your goal. But studies have shown that you actually start to release dopamine at the very beginning of your wait.
Dopamine is known as the feel-good chemical, but it’s actually tied to motivation. From the moment you start looking forward to something, your brain starts releasing dopamine so that you want to do the work. It motivates you. And if you aren’t sure whether you can actually achieve your goal, your brain will release even more dopamine to help you push forward. It knows that when you feel good, you’re more likely to do something, and it uses this to incentivize your behavior.
When it comes to Wordle, you can only play once per day. Which means you spend an entire day looking forward to that moment when you can sit down and play again. And because you also have a limited number of guesses, your uncertainty on whether you’ll get the reward—solving the puzzle—increases your dopamine while you wait, and once you start playing, every guess adds more dopamine until you either solve the word or fail. If you fail, your dopamine elevates even more while you wait to try again.
No matter what, your brain is giving you a powerful motivation boost in between each session. Very few games have this built in prohibitive factor, which likely explains why so many people became obsessed with the game so quickly and have stayed obsessed so long.
It might seem strange to equate puzzles with evolution, but there’s some science to back that up. As a hunter-gatherer, your brain is hard-wired to hunt. And solving puzzles triggers the same mechanism in the brain. You want to find solutions and hunting for answers is similar to studying tracks or following clues that lead to a successful hunt.
A study out of Dartmouth University found that the brain “repurposes” evolutionary skills to adapt them to fit without your current lifestyle. One example is reading. The brain doesn’t actually have separate neural circuitry that allows you to understand the written page. Rather, it adapted the neural networks involved in facial, object, and pattern recognition to include letters.
Your brain also likes a challenge. Creativity is often seen as a more modern endeavor, but creative thinking is simply another way to describe problem-solving. And the harder the problem, the more active your brain is. Facing challenging problems forces your brain to look for solutions, potentially activating areas of the brain that may not be used otherwise. In turn, this creates new neural pathways as connections are made, keeping the brain healthy.
From an evolutionary perspective, creativity is how humanity moved forward as a species. Walking upright was a creative process. Conquering fire, learning language, forming community, adopting agriculture—all of this required new solutions that had never been discovered or considered. While solving a puzzle may not feel as significant, it does keep those processes active and alert. And the harder the puzzle, the better it is for your brain. When you struggle to solve a problem, your brain actually increases the production of myelin, a substance that coats neuron cells and increases the strength of signals sent between cells. Essentially, struggling to solve a puzzle speeds up your brain’s thinking process.
Finally, Wordle engages your connection to community. Everyone solves the same word, which activates a sense of friendly competition. But more than that, it opens the opportunity to meet like-minded people. You can bond over your favorite Wordle strategies, what your opening word choice is, and how many guesses it took every day. Community kept early humans safe to such a degree, that social interaction continues to improve every aspect of your physical, emotional, and mental health. Sharing your Wordle results encourages that interaction and helps you find a community.
The bottom line is Wordle isn’t the only brain game that provides an incredible range of brain-boosting benefits. There are a wide range of puzzles that will challenge and exercise your cognitive skills. But Wordle has become a global phenomenon because it’s more than a simple word game. It offers you the chance to feel like you’re part of a community where you can engage with other players in a multitude of ways. It gives you something to look forward to and provides varying levels of challenge every time you play. Whether you play this game or choose a different one, exercising your brain in new ways every day is a fun way to keep your brain happy and healthy.