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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Mahjongg and the Brain

Those of us who play regularly know that mahjongg is good for us.  However, it may be difficult to articulate exactly what the benefits are, especially when we are trying to explain to non-players. We think in some way playing this game may stave off the lurking shadow of Alzheimer's, but don't quite know how.

Now I am not a doctor (nor do I play one on TV) and I will state unequivocally I have no credentials or scientific background. (In fact, I failed my biology Regents) But I do consider myself an amateur sociologist with a specialty in the subculture of National Mah Jongg League mahjongg players and I have an annoying tendency of picking up an interesting train of thought and somehow managing to relate it to my favorite passtime.  This is how my brain works and I'm used to it by now.  

Recently I have been thinking about brain activity.  It started in relation to losing weight (let's not go there) but eventually, as with all things, it led to mahj.  What comeback could I give the naysayers who think I am just sitting on my butt noshing and saying "One bam"?  

Dr. Marie Savard, who is a doctor AND plays one on TV suggests that the brain can be strengthened and challenged and this will help protect against MCI - mild cognitive impairment, which increases the risk of the development of dementia and later Alzheimer's.(1)  Mahjongg provides this strength training and challenge in the following ways:
  • Sensory stimulation - We see the tiles, touch them, hear their names, taste the honey wheat low-fat pretzels that Susan brought and smell -- well, four out of five ain't bad.  This stimulates the occipital cortex, superior temporal gyrus and parietal lobe, which governs sensory integration
  • Math skills - Although mahj is not a "numbers game," per se, it does involve some math skill.  "That's 25 and I picked it myself plus it's jokerless and bet on so it's $2.00 all."  Think cerebrum
  • Short term memory and organization - From the moment we put our tiles in our hand we are exercising our frontal lobe which controls executive functions such as planning (hmm...what hand should I go for...) organizing (should I keep the twos and sevens or the twos and eights...or the sevens and eights...) attention (what did I pass her?  Did she keep it?) 
  • Learning and long term memory - The hippocampus converts short term memory into long term.  It helps us to remember the rituals of the game (right, across, left; left, across, right) and to integrate the hands so that we don't have to look at the card so much.
In short, mahjongg actively engages many areas of our brain simultaneously.  Taking risks and learning new hands deepens this level of activity so that the game stays fresh.  But wait, there's more.

We cannot overlook the emotional component of mahjongg on our mental health.  Our limbic system, which governs emotion and instinctive behaviors, comes into play when we spend time with our friends and interact socially.   But more importantly, for many of us, mahjongg gives us a purpose in life, and research has shown that this may afford protection from decline.(2)  While to some it may seem a trivial purpose (after all, it isn't like you're a Congressman or anything) it provides a connectedness to a caring community and a refuge from many of the stormy ills of life.

So the next time someone pooh-poohs your obsession, just recount for them the many ways mahjongg is of benefit to you.  And if you can't remember all of them, you'll just have to play more mahj!

(1) Video of Dr. Savard (five minutes but worth watching)
If link doesn't work, copy and paste address into browser:

(2) Article - Living a Purposeful Life can Stave Off Alzheimer's

1 comment:

  1. When my little boy was born 5 years ago, I went from working full time to being a stay at home mom. I met some other new mothers at the JCC and we started playing Maj. It saved my sanity and kept my brain, if not sharp, then at least somewhat engaged.