Expert Chess Players Win by Tapping Into Intuitive Brain Circuits
Getting better at chess, it turns out, isn’t merely a matter of thinking harder—it has more to do with what parts of the brain you use to think in the first place. Neuroscientists from Japan studied the brainy blood-flows of both professional and amateur shogi players (a chess-like game from Japan) and found that professionals are more apt to put on their intuitive thinking caps.
The study, published in Science, used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to examine which brain areas showed the most blood flow as professional and amateur shogi players tested their mettle during a match.
[The scientists] studied 11 professional players and 17 amateurs, and identified two brain activations that were specific to the pros. First, both groups of players were shown different shogi board patterns as well as other scenes, but only the experts showed activation in a portion of the parietal lobe known as the precuneus. The other brain difference occurred when the players were forced to quickly pick their next best move. The professionals’ brain scans revealed activity in a portion of the basal ganglion known as the caudate nucleus, while the amateurs’ scans did not. [healthfinder.gov]
Keiji Tanaka, one of the researchers at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute’s Cognitive Brain Mapping Laboratory in Wako, Japan, says that the caudate nucleus is associated with bodily movements, but also with intuitive thinking, and the hope is that science will find ways to allow humans to make better use of this brain area. As it stands, it takes years of practice for professionals to harness the powers of the caudate nucleus.
“Professionals are trained extensively for a long time, over 10 years, hours every day. This extensive training (may have) shifted the activity from the cerebral cortex to the caudate nucleus,” the study’s lead author Tanaka said…. “The caudate nucleus is very well developed in rats and mice, while the cerebral cortex is very developed in primates … by becoming expert, shogi masters start to use all parts of the brain,” Tanaka said. [Reuters]
These findings have far greater implications than for just shogi and chess players, according to Paul Sanberg, director of the University of South Florida Center of Excellence for Aging and Brain Repair in Tampa.
“If you look at the areas of the brains that showed specific activity in the professional game players, these are the same regions that are involved in certain diseases, such as Parkinson’s,” he noted…. “Anything that adds to our understanding about what these parts of the brain can do is important, and the hope is that we may be able to develop potential treatments to increase the activity in these areas if they’re injured” [healthfinder.gov]
In addition to the potential relevance for disease research, Tanaka also hopes that this research will eventually prove useful for all intuition-using professionals.
“Auditors, crime investigators, doctors all need (intuition) to find the point of concern, the point of abnormality,” he said…. “Systems engineers often have to depend on intuition to locate the source of trouble. Excellent engineers can’t explain why they are good, it’s very similar to chess.” [Reuters]
So the next time you hear about the awesome power of the human cerebral cortex, just remember: it takes a seasoned professional to harness mouse-brained intuition.
Image: flickr / Ed Yourdon