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Brain Activation

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Phil Ross sends in a link to the cover of Science magazine. It's not easily available on newsstands, at least not in New York. Nice cover, anyway. There have been many studies of what goes on in a brain that is playing chess. One group was recently surprised to find the flare-ups had less in common with those of doing math problems than of solving word puzzles.

There's no doubt chess can discipline the mind to work more effectively in many ways. Those benefits are promptly negated when you become addicted to online blitz and cease to be a productive member of society.


When doing my psychology degree i tried to squeeze chess into every module I could. I even read a book from the 1980's on cognitive research into chess.

Thankfully ELO points don't correlate with IQ points, though what IQ does correlate with is not so clear either.

As I am sure most of you know, intelligence is a difficult subject to study (mainly do to the reflexive nature of the undertaking), but most psychologists agree that verbal, spatial and numerical, as well as others such as musical and emotional have to be considered.

I suppose that it's also possible that not all player process the game in the same way.

Along these lines, I thought the report in the journal Nature a couple months back was quite interesting. (see: http://www.bioedonline.org/news/news.cfm?art=1195)

In summary, they found that grand masters spend more time trying to "falsify" their candidate moves (figure out the opponent's best response), while amateur players try to validate their candidate moves by figuring out how the opponent will help their plans. Others have referred to this as "hope chess".
As a scientist, I appreciated this apparent link between chess and science.

I agree with Jabinski - it probably differs from person to person. Perhaps when a 1000 ELO amateur is thinking on what move to make, his process of thinking is like solving a puzzle. Perhaps some especially weak players play in a way that would make their brain activity look like that of a woodchopper. However, when someone like Kasparov or Shirov is calculating a complicated sacrifice, perhaps the brain waves look a lot like math calculations. Anyway, I think the people who do such research probably know too little about chess for their research to be relevant. I would hypothesize that higher rated player's brain activity would be very different from a lower rated one.

Yes Russuabbear. I mean most of the time I am playing chess I am probably thinking about a lot of things other than chess. I shan't divulge what.

One of the few times in my life when I was playing relatively well - I discovered that I was visualizing the chess pieces by what they were doing. I was "seeing" the effect that a piece had on other pieces. More of a vizualization of forces and potentials then of a board with pieces and pawns.

I don't know if I'm describing this well, but I am curious if others have the same feeling. It didn't last very long before I returned to normal, which might be why I remember the difference.

The correlation between chess and other cognitive activity is an interesting study. Proponents of chess list such tangible benefits as attention to detail, creativity, and general mental discipline. Detractors point to inconclusive evidence and write off brilliant chess players as folks who are simply good at applying proprietary rules to a specialized pastime. I tend to agree with the former. Some of the more vehement detractors may have had their clock cleaned one too many times and just had to vent that sub-1500 spleen. :)

Great post, Mig. I enjoy reading your blog.

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    This page contains a single entry by Mig published on October 28, 2004 5:41 AM.

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