If losing at Scrabble every Christmas makes you want to flip the board over in a rage, you might want to squeeze some practice in quickly.
Scientists have found that experienced Scrabble players use different parts of their brains than everyday players – particularly those associated with working memory and visual perception.
This helps them form words from the letter tiles quickly and developing this ability could boost your game scores and change the way you use your brain, Canadian researchers explained.
Competitive Scrabble players devote considerable time to studying words and practising word game-related skills such as anagramming – rearranging letters to make words – according to the study, published in the Elsevier journal Cortex.
To investigate the neural consequences of these skills, researchers from the University of Calgary compared the brain activity and connectivity in 12 Scrabble experts with that of non-experts, using fMRI scanners.
Study participants were asked to identify a word from a jumble of letters appearing on a screen in front of them, as quickly as possible, as well as differentiate words from non-words that appeared horizontally or vertically, like in a game of Scrabble.
During the tasks, their brains were scanned.
The team found ‘a significant effect of expertise, as Scrabble experts were significantly faster than controls [at forming words]’ – a result that was expected.
But they also discovered that the Scrabble experts made use of brain regions not generally associated with visual word recognition.
Instead, they used areas associated with working memory and visual perception.
Areas of the brain that displayed increased activity for Scrabble experts included the right inferior frontal gyrus, right inferior temporal gyrus, right inferior parietal lobe, bilateral superior parietal lobe, left insula, bilateral fusiform gyrus and bilateral middle occipital gyrus.
The study said: ‘Within the Scrabble expert group, those who were better anagrammers relied mostly on prefrontal regions (bilateral anterior cingulate and medial prefrontal cortex).
‘Controls, on the other hand, relied on a widespread network, including frontal, temporal, parietal, occipital, limbic and paralimbic regions.’
This suggests memorising words from a dictionary or looking at the appearance, rather than the individual letters, of words could improve an overall score.
UK Scrabble expert and Countdown champion Barry Grossman said there are at least 100 different tips players can use to win i his book, 101 Ways to Win at Scrabble.
In particular, although proper nouns aren’t generally accepted, there are some exceptions.
For example, his own name Barry can be used as another word for a blunder or mistake because it is Australian slang.
Grossman’s book added there are a handful of four-letter words that don’t contain any vowels that are also accepted in Scrabble. These include psst, pfft, brrr and grrl.
Study co-author Sophia Van Hees told CBC that the research demonstrates the brain’s flexibility and that different regions can perform similar tasks.
The team hopes the study could be used to develop brain training exercises to help people with neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s.
Scrabble, for example, may help them use alternative parts of the brain to tackle problems they were able to solve before.
Professor Andrea Protzner, a researcher in psychology at Calgary and lead author of the study, told MailOnline: ‘Our study suggests that the visual word recognition system is flexible in adults, and different strategies for word recognition may be available as a function of experience.’
The research hints that the expert players may be unconsciously recruiting regions of their brains to work on a task which they normally wouldn’t.
This inherent flexibility, called neuroplasticity, could be beneficial to those who have suffered a brain injury. It would be especially beneficial in people where undamaged areas of the brain might be recruited to do the some of the work previously carried out by damaged areas of the brain.
Professor Protzner added: ‘This finding could have implications for neuro-rehabilitation.
‘It suggests that different brain regions can be engaged to perform a task as a result of training, and this may inform treatments targeting compensatory mechanisms following brain injury.’