Laura Mattos: What does the magic cube have to do with pandemic anxiety?

The magic cube, famous since the 1980s, is increasingly popular and today has the most unimaginable versions. In addition to that original, the so-called 3×3, there is the 4×4, the 5×5… the 17×17, in the shape of a pyramid, a barrel and even a house and a banana. While parents find it complicated or even impossible to assemble them, children and teenagers do the job in seconds, with one hand, feet and even blindfolded.

Back to classroom classes, the magic cubes reappear in schools, and there are students who do not want to stop with the frantic movements even when the teacher is explaining the subject. After all, in the days of remote learning, he got used to doing this without major problems. The craze for assembling cubes, although not recent, may have acquired new meanings in the lives of children and young people from the pandemic, in a context of anxiety increase, anxieties and uncertainties.

Unscramble the colors and organize them gives cube fans a feeling of stress relief amidst the chaos of today. “It’s satisfying to get everything right”, as summarized by student Yan Rodrigues Rocha, 17, from Caraguatatuba (on the coast of São Paulo), who assembles cubes since he was 9 years old and participates in championships. He solves the 3×3 in about 13 seconds, which places him among the top 200 in Brazil, where the record is 5.58 seconds — the world is 3.47. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Yan has been building cubes while watching classes online and says he feels less anxious because of it — in his opinion, his brain is able to pay attention to the lesson and to assemble at the same time. He says he’s seen an increase in the popularity of the cubes during the confinement, with greater connection to social media and a flurry of videos on TikTok of kids and teens riding.

The magic cube was created in 1974 by Hungarian architect and design professor Erno Rubik, who designed it, unpretentiously, to study three-dimensional shapes and rotational movements. As he painted the pieces on each side in different colors and then moved them around, he realized he had invented a puzzle. It took him almost a month to reorganize them, as narrated in the book “Cubed”, released last year. Patented in 1975, the Rubik’s cube hit the toy market in the late 1970s and, in the early 1980s, became an international phenomenon.

It is estimated that more than 350 million units of the originals, not counting the copies, have already been sold. Over these nearly five decades, the cube has expanded its popularity with international championships, in which assembly time records have been broken by so-called “speedcubers”. With the arrival of YouTube in the 2000s, tutorial videos and competition scenes increased its fame.

Assembling cubes quickly can, of course, be a game like any other, usually a passing phase of childhood and adolescence. However, in the context of the pandemic and in the face of its traumas, including the closing of schools, the practice, in some cases, takes on a form of compulsion, linked to the attempt to control anxiety and fears, in the assessment of pediatrician and psychologist Eduardo Goldenstein , from the Department of Mental Health of the Society of Pediatrics of São Paulo.

With the difficulty of dealing with so many new and far from simple situations, organizing the cube can bring a sense of security, believes the psychologist. It’s not for everyone, obviously, that it works that way, and there are people who get more stressed than calm. It is important, says Goldenstein, that family and school pay attention to the way children and adolescents use cubes, as well as other games, especially online ones, so that they can, if necessary, help them expand strategies to mitigate anxiety and facing fears. “It is not a question of discussing whether the magic cube is good or not, but of understanding whether there is anguish behind the practice and trying to open up the horizon of children and young people to overcome them, with conversation and interaction with them.”

The already recognized potential of cubes as a tool to expand reasoning and concentration, which has been incorporated into private and public education, cannot be ignored. Assembling the cube is, after all, dealing with algorithms, that is, with sequences of movements necessary to arrive at the solution, amidst nothing less than 43 quintillion possible combinations.

The cube can also be an ally in welcoming during the resumption of in-person classes, generating motivation and facilitating socialization. One of the recent projects, which began in August, is the Clube do Cubo Mágico, which brings together students from the sixth to ninth grades of the Tranquilo Pissetti Municipal School, in the municipality of Içara (SC).

It is with sensitivity that the documentary “Magos do Cubo”, recently released by Netflix, narrates the social-emotional advances that the cube provided to Max Park, an autistic American boy who became one of the greatest world champions in assembling the puzzle — he currently ranks sixth on the official 3v3 rankings with 4.40 seconds. In one of the championships he won, more than the time it took him to set up, his parents celebrated the fact that, on the podium, he looked at the other competitors and acted like them. The cube had the strength to connect him to the people around him, a difficulty for the young man.

The friendship shown by the film between Max and one of his biggest competitors, the Australian Feliks Zemdegs, now third in 3×3, with 4.16 seconds, is touching. In the event of a defeat for one and a victory for the other, both reconcile their frustration with themselves with the satisfaction of seeing their friend win. Next to this complex and rare ability, facing algorithms and quintillions of cube combinations is even easy.

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