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Neurology Now:
doi: 10.1097/01.NNN.0000361353.30897.56
Department: the Waiting Room

Our Kind of Guy: Puzzlemaster Scott Kim: “Escher of the Alphabet”

Stump, Elizabeth

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If there's one thing that gets Scott Kim, Ph.D., out of bed in the morning, it's the chance to tackle a new mental challenge. And for more than two decades, Kim has channeled this passion into an award-winning career creating visual-thinking puzzles for computer games, the Web, mobile devices, magazines, and toys.

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Kim, who designs his puzzles as “brain exercise” and entertainment for the average consumer and for young students, recently embarked upon one of his latest projects: to create puzzles for patients with neurologic disorders. Neurology Now's May/June 2009 issue premiered Kim's work designed specifically for the magazine in the Neurobics section, page 9.

Kim has long believed that puzzles can help boost brain power, and research is on his side: several studies, including one published in the August 2009 issue of the journal Neurology, show that cognitive activities like puzzles delay memory decline. (Check out Resource Central on page 37 for more information on puzzles for cognitive health.)

Born in 1955, Kim later attended Stanford University and received a BA in music in 1977 and a self-designed Ph.D. in Computers and Graphic Design in 1988. During those two decades his interest in computer games grew, although it wasn't until he first played Tetris in the late 1980s that he decided to become a computer-game designer. “Tetris took a classic geometric puzzle and adapted it brilliantly to make a highly original computer game—the first computer puzzle game. I thought, that's the type of game I want to make.”

Since becoming a full-time independent game designer in 1990, Kim has been on a roll, designing thousands of puzzles for Games and Discover magazines, for the computer, and for the Web, including puzzles for hit Web games like Bejeweled, Collapse, Cubis, and Poppit. The author of three books, Inversions, The New Media Puzzle Workout, and Math Dance, Kim is currently working on a fourth—although for the first time, this book will have a neuroscience bent. Called Brain Candy, it is the result of collaboration with neuroscientist Richard Restak, M.D., clinical professor of neurology at George Washington Hospital University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Dr. Restak has written over a dozen popular books about the brain.

Brain Candy is unique because it combines information on the brain with puzzles that apply to certain brain functions. “It's like an exercise video that both demonstrates exercises for you to do, and explains why they are good for you,” Kim says.

He describes his puzzles as “in the spirit of Tetris and M.C. Escher—visually stimulating, thought provoking, broadly appealing, and highly original.” Given his attraction to Escher's work, it is natural that he considers the greatest compliment paid to him to be when science fiction writer Isaac Asimov called him the “Escher of the Alphabet.”

In the world of puzzles, there's something for everyone, Kim says.

“If you find puzzles intimidating, start with easy ones. Once you solve one puzzle, you'll find yourself itching to try more. Look for books with puzzles that range from easy to hard. If you just don't like puzzles, look for ones that suit your interests. Like mystery stories? Look for mystery puzzles. Like art? Try jigsaw puzzles. If you find puzzles a waste of time, think of them as mental exercise, like jogging or doing yoga. Puzzles aren't just fun, they're good for you too. Your brain will thank you.”

To play more games, visit scottkim.com and shufflebrain.com.

Elizabeth Stump

©2009 American Academy of Neurology

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