Sunday, June 15, 2014

A five-minute game and a lesson in life

Although it didn't occur to me for a long while, playing the Chinese tile game of Mah-Jong on the computer is not just a nice quiet way to pass the time, it teaches some interesting lessons along the way.

Barnyard Mah-jong
First of all, in many computer versions you can choose tiles with the Arabic numbers we use every day, 1, 2, 3 etc, and graphics we easily recognize as symbols for the seasons, or you can use the more traditional Chinese symbols. You can even download a set with barnyard animals, fruit, vegetables and a cartoon farmer on them.

The computer lays out the tiles in a specific pattern. The app I use has about 300 different patterns, only eight or nine of which I've actually used so far. You're timed. You have five minutes to remove all the tiles by matching them to an identical tile somewhere in the layout. The catch is that the tile must be exposed on three of its four edges, or it cannot be removed from the board. Difficulty is determined by the layout, as some layouts leave many tiles exposed and some leave only a few exposed.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter Tiles
Obviously the challenge is reduced when the patterns on the tiles are familiar to you, like those to the right. Your brain doesn't have to work as hard at pattern recognition on these tiles as on the unfamiliar Chinese symbol set, but since pattern recognition is a skill we need to preserve as we get older I use the Chinese set. I admit I still haven't completely figured out the matches in the seasonal and flower tiles.

I've tried numerous approaches and I've learned it's better if I organize my search beginning in the upper right hand corner. My brain observes more quickly and accurately working right and down and then to left centre to upper left corner, which is counter-intuitive in a culture in which we read left to right.

In practice of course you search over the entire board, or should, but that's generally a distraction and I will frequently empty 60% of the middle and right side of the board without ever touching the left tiles, except perhaps to pick up a match for a straggler. 

Chinese symbol tiles
These searches sharpen your observation skills, because it's not always easy to see that a tile is exposed. As you search back and forth for a matching tile you work your short-term memory. You often find a different matching set while seeking a particular tile, but to improve your time you need to be able to remember which tile you are looking for though you come across two or three matches which distract you from your original quest.

This is much like multi-tasking in daily life, a skill women are supposedly better at than men. Stir the soup, stop Jr. from climbing a tree, change the baby's diapers, run out and throw rocks at the neighbour's dog who is chasing the chickens, run back in and stir the pot… or keep a single tile in mind as several other pairs pop out at you. I find I am less and less successful at this the longer I play. My fastest times are my early ones. My brain tires quickly, but not as quickly as it did when I began playing.

Then you come to a point where there are still 15 or 16 tiles on the board, and you can't see a match anywhere. You go "match blind". At times the two tiles are adjacent, sometimes one is up in the corner, alone, or doesn't appear to be exposed. But you know there's a match. The solution is there, if you persist. And once you find that one match it often uncovers a tile that then allows you to end the game in seconds.

This says to me that most problems have solutions, maybe not obvious ones. I have to look stop, think, consider all the options. 

And  if there are no tiles left on the board which match in that configuration, the app shuffles the tiles, and then progress can be made. Beating my head against a wall which can't be fixed gets me nowhere. Sometimes you need someone to shuffle the tiles. This may be advice from a calm, reasonable friend, your doctor, your spiritual adviser; the person you trust to listen. Someone who has your best long-term interests at heart, and won't just tell you what you want to hear. 

And then I look at the timer, and while occasionally I finish under in 5:00 minutes, it almost always says 5:28, or 7:45 or 8:10. And I don't care, because I'm here to relax, not stress out. Decisions made in haste are often regretted.


Linda P. said...

Thanks for this post. I have not ever played this game, much less played it on the computer. I may give it a try. Do you feel more centered--if I dare use a dated and overused term--or calmer after finishing, or scattered and tired?

Deb said...

Hi Linda,
I have frequent migraines and can't handle noise, the movement seen on TV or even conversation. *But* doing conventional breathing exercises drop my blood pressure (because of my EDS) so I often play MahJong when I have a migraine.

The "still mind" approach to coping with my migraines doesn't work, but MahJong does. And I often play it while waiting for my pain meds to kick in before bedtime. So, it's calming for me, but again I don't watch the clock and try to finish a set within the five minute goal. I just doddle along and I don't worry if it takes me 10 minutes.