A photo of a kitsch jigsaw puzzle depicting waves, mountains and a setting sun in deep colours of blue, purple, pink.

In Praise of Jigsaw Puzzles

29 Sep 2020

Artist, writer and activist (and former Somerset House Studios resident) Season Butler ruminates on the restorative potential of the humble jigsaw puzzle in our latest long read.

‘Doing a puzzle is a bit like doing yoga exercises…a very welcome relaxation from your daily routine. It is a labour of love, challenge and light relief all in one. Doing puzzles is exciting, with invigorating emotional ups and downs. Piece for piece, as you search, find and search again, your feeling of achievement grows. One person can work on a puzzle – or a whole group. Why don’t you make your next party a puzzle one?’

— Ravensburger®, from the box of puzzle No.157952, ‘Kitten in the Apple Tree’, nd.


When I embark on a jigsaw puzzle, I am taking on a problem with a single, achievable solution. This is what I want a puzzle to do for me, to be for me. I accept that I live in a world of complexity, nuance, greyscale, a quantum universe in constant flux. But a puzzle is not my life and it is not the world; it’s something static and eventually quite obedient. Jigsaw puzzles provide me a temporary reprieve, an escape. A place of simplicity dressed as complexity. The opposite of life.


In aid of this imperative for a straightforward experience among my normal, quotidian chaos, my jigsaw puzzle must be fully interlocking. This problem that has a single, achievable solution requires thousands of smaller solutions in order to reach it, and a fully interlocking puzzle means that every encounter between two pieces is a binary, yes-or-no question with no conflict of morality or preference. And the desire to negotiate with the puzzle will creep in. I will yell at the pieces and protest that they have to fit!, but if the answer is ‘no’, I will eventually have to accept the no and move on. I make choices and some of these will be mistakes, but either in the first instance of introducing one tab (the part that sticks out) to one blank (the empty space into which the tab fits), or later on when I realise that something isn’t working, the mistakes make themselves known. Admit it, correct it. No hard feelings.


Puzzles, for me, are not a macho flex. I don’t want mine to be forty thousand pieces or monochromatic or an image of a million buttons. I believe that a jigsaw puzzle’s healing powers are at their height when they adhere to what James Clear calls the Goldilocks Rule:

The human brain loves a challenge, but only if it is within an optimal zone of difficulty. If you love tennis and try to play a serious match against a four-year-old, you will quickly become bored. It’s too easy. You’ll win every point. In contrast, if you play a professional tennis player like Roger Federer or Serena Williams, you will quickly lose motivation because the match is too difficult.

Now consider playing tennis against someone who is your equal. As the game progresses, you win a few points and you lose a few. You have a good chance of winning, but only if you really try. Your focus narrows, distractions fade away, and you find yourself fully invested in the task at hand. This is a challenge of just manageable difficulty…

The Goldilocks Rule states that humans experience peak motivation when working on tasks that are right on the edge of their current abilities. Not too hard. Not too easy. Just right.


For a solo puzzle venture, one thousand pieces is my sweet spot. It will take time, so I can dip in and out of it, lose myself in it for five minutes or several hours. But I will get there. I will be able to smooth the surface with my palm, feeling the joins across a kitsch picture I like well enough but that I’m not attached to. Then I leave it for a couple of days, no more than that, break the pieces carefully into the box. I do not glue them and frame them to keep them forever. This is not an event, not even a milestone. I never aspired to climb Everest. When the puzzle is complete, I’m ready to return it to the charity shop and move on.


I almost always buy my jigsaw puzzles second hand. People ask if I worry that there will be pieces missing, but this has only happened to me once and, to be honest, it yielded my life’s most surprisingly tender moment. When I dumped the pieces out to seek out the edges, a little slip of paper came too, cut to the exact shape of the missing piece. This gesture from a stranger answers every question I might ever entertain about humanity’s essential nature. Sure, it’s not a good idea to trust blindly all the time, but people who love puzzles deserve the benefit of the doubt.


There are exceptions to all of my rules about puzzles, of course. I like to buy a brand new puzzle with an image I find beautiful and personal when I’m giving one as a gift. 

I bought a tiny hundred-piecer when a new fuck-buddy came to my place for the first time, as neither of us takes alcohol and we needed something to serve as a preamble to sex. We got through the edge pieces. The next time he came over, he found that I’d finished it without him and he was genuinely hurt, despite my suggestive apologies for not being able to keep my hands off it.

Before my first visit to my partner’s flat, airborne with infatuation, I agonised over the selection of beautiful puzzles in the Stoke Newington Bookshop and settled on a Charly Harper image. I found out when I presented it that Harper was an inspiration and mentor from his art school days.


I can’t remember what the adults were talking about, whether their tone was cautiously hushed in that strained, stabbing whisper, or if an exchange of insults was dinner-table-volume but barbed. I doubt it was one of the rare moments of full-out battle where people fill their lungs and bare their teeth to the gums and wish they lived in a different part of the animal kingdom, a part without cops or courts or child services. A part where conflicts are settled without recourse to regulations or restricted by etiquette. It was tense and I was stressed without knowing why, which made it worse.

What I remember most clearly is the colour blue. The blue parts of a jigsaw puzzle are often difficult – is it the lake or the sky or part of the mountain? I was stuck into a blue part when one of the adults in the room gestured at my puzzle and asked, ‘Does it soothe you?’ She told me she noticed that I often curled my legs under my body on the chilly linoleum floor and turned my attention to a puzzle when disquiet set in in the family home. Jigsaw puzzles became a standard birthday and Christmas present from her to me. (Shake a wrapped holiday gift and the puzzles give themselves away gratifyingly.) 


I like the relief from blue light. 
Nothing pops up. 
Nothing pings. 
I love the feeling of a thick, solid piece between my fingertips as I search for its neighbours, and will accordingly pay a couple of quid more for quality. 
I like the feeling of moving from one small satisfaction to the next.


The spectre of Alzheimer’s hums a sinister white noise in a lot of families who’ve seen an elder suffer and die from it, although specialists believe that the disease is usually not hereditary. The last decade of my grandmother’s life looked to me like a waking nightmare, a long walk through hell that her adult children were tasked to usher her through. So when my mother or one of my aunts or uncles loses their keys or forgets what they wanted once they open the fridge, the subtext of panic can be intense.

In 2018, Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience published a study into ‘the effect of solving jigsaw puzzles on global visuospatial cognition in adults 50 years of age and older’. The trial found that:

solving jigsaw puzzles depicts a low-cost, intrinsically motivating leisure activity, which can be executed alone or with others, and without the need to operate a digital device, positive results would indicate a highly feasible cognitive intervention to improve visuospatial cognition and everyday functioning, and psychological outcomes in this population.

[L]ifelong jigsaw puzzle experience might be one out of many cognitive activities that may contribute to a delayed clinical manifestation of neurocognitive disorders.

(For the sake of full transparency I should note here that: ‘The trial was funded by Ravensburger Spieleverlag GmbH (RSV). The funder has no role or ultimate authority in study design; collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of data; writing of the manuscript; and the decision to submit the report for publication. RSV has no role in the study, apart from providing the jigsaw puzzles.’)

Maybe my grandmother would have been an ideal puzzle partner. I could have set up a folding table in her bedroom, which always smelled of lavender and Oil of Olay, and it was always quiet there. It just didn’t occur to me that we might have been able to help each other.


The bittiness of jigsaw puzzles prompted a friend to compare them to cut-ups, a technique which is basically the jigsaw puzzle’s foil. One is about taking something that was unified and exploding it into infinite possibilities, introducing a generative randomness into something given. The other is about taking manifold possibilities and applying process and attention to funnel the fragments into a single picture. I love both, but only the latter will do when the moment comes to pull myself together. (Reader, you must indulge me this one single Dad Joke; there could easily have been many more.)


Some of Georges Perec’s observations on jigsaw puzzles in Life: A User’s Manual (1978) strike me as dated, if indeed they were ever apt (real puzzle lovers eschew cardboard puzzles in favour of wooden ones? Seriously?), but most of what he asserts rings true in my experience. We are of a mind on the question of the picture on a puzzle. He writes:

Contrary to a widely and firmly held belief, it does not really matter whether the initial image is easy (or something taken to be easy – a genre scene in the style of Vermeer, for example, or a colour photograph of an Austrian castle) or difficult (a Jackson Pollock, a Pissarro, or the poor paradox of a blank puzzle). It’s not the subject of the picture, or the painter’s technique, which makes a puzzle more or less difficult, but the greater or lesser subtlety of the way it has been cut…

However, my distinction in terms of the image is less about difficulty (I have only ever accessed the machine-cut cardboard puzzles which Perec subordinates to hand-cut wooden ones). It’s about attachment to process. I have a strong preference for puzzles that don’t culminate in an image that I find especially pleasing. I don’t want to be responsible for the completion or not of the Sistine Chapel; give me the stupid basket of kittens any day. 

When I was working on my PhD (a protracted and maddening encounter with racism, misogyny, class bias, ableism and the inevitable gaslighting that cements these oppressions into the neoliberal university experience) I moved continuously between my laptop and a jigsaw puzzle. When my frustration with the writing reached a zenith and my mind felt full of static, I’d turn to my puzzle and let my writing brain run in the background. And when I’d had enough of dealing with some intricate dangle of foliage or impossible block of blue, for example, and nothing seemed to fit together, the composition of tricky sentences and the building of arguments seemed like a piece of cake. Back and forth, each problem took its turn as the problem, and both required a similar commitment to just getting it done. Completion, not brilliance, not even beauty, was the goal of each.


‘The pieces are readable, take on a sense, only when assembled; in isolation, a puzzle piece means nothing – just an impossible question, an opaque challenge. But as soon as you have succeeded, after minutes of trial and error, or after a prodigious half-second flash of inspiration, in fitting it into one of its neighbours, the piece disappears, ceases to exist as a piece. The intense difficulty preceding this link-up – which the English word puzzle indicates so well – not only loses its raison d’être, it seems never to have had any reason, so obvious does the solution appear.’ Perec, 1978