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Brain Functions

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An article on an interesting study about a possible cognitive relationship between music and reading skills.

Stanford University research has found for the first time that musical training improves how the brain processes the spoken word, a finding that researchers say could lead to improving the reading ability of children who have dyslexia and other reading problems. --- What's promising about the study, researchers believe, is the notion that the brain isn't an immutable organ fixed at birth but is adaptable -- that, with training, people can change their mental agility. The study focused on adults, but researchers want to expand the scope of their work to children as early as next summer.

It's that last bit about the brain not being immutable that is most relevant to chess. We usually attribute scholastic improvement in chessplayers to discipline and concentration, as well as "life lessons" about consequences and planning, which are no doubt factors. But the heavy lifting of calculation, memorization, and visualization in chess may improve those skills in a sense deeper than practice. It also lends weight to the conventional wisdom that chess "keeps you sharp," especially as the aging process slows our mental reflexes.

Of course any chessplayer can tell you that the game can temporarily rewire your brain in odd ways too. Playing a lot often leads to imagining completely unrelated interactions (personal, news, etc.) as chess. These brief daydream flashes usually go away after a few weeks of not playing.


It's a little bit silly for the researchers to be claiming that this study shows that the brain is adaptable. Pick up any neuroscience text and you can find dozens of sections that go into explicit detail about ways in which the brain can adapt and change over time based on the experiences you give it. I mean, you wouldn't even be able to form memories without your brain constantly being able to alter its form and function.

The research does seem interesting nevertheless.

Thoses studies are done every year. This time the result is "music and reading", next year its "math and music" and after that "chess and math". Unbelievable! Phenomenal! Great stuff... :(((

Following your point Mig on "playing a lot often leads to imagining completely unrelated interactions" In an interview the 7th World Champion Smyslov reveals some interesting stuff on brains activity..."

Smyslov: http://www.gmsquare.com/interviews/smyslov.html

Thanks for the post. It's very interesting! He seems to be a great philosopher like Lasker and Nimzowitsch.

It has been shown that working memory, or the ability to keep information "on-line" during problem-solving, can be considerably improved by training, especially in children with concentration problems. I think it is pretty likely that studying chess can improve working memory to some extent, since calculating variations is a prime example of what working memory is all about. As anecdotal evidence, Bu Xiangzhi said in an interview that his ability to learn Chinese characters was considerably improved after he had started to play chess.

Smyslov sounds highly New Age-y! Does he live in California?

These people confuse mind with brain. They are not the same thing. These same neurosurgeons can’t explain how memory really works or how thought really happens yet they make all these definitive pronouncements. Think how much raw data it takes to save one DVD video. Now that’s just 3 hours worth of audio and video. Now figure out how much data it would for a continuous recording of 5, 10, or 50 years. Don’t forget to fact in all the other senses plus all your thoughts about them, dreams, ideas, study, learning, experience etc. Then finally cross reference all these. See where I am going here? Using what we know about digital data storage, even if memories are somehow stored using the very molecular structure of the brain, there isn’t enough room. And of course it raises the question as to what could read and write to such a structure.

We all know that we have a brain. And we all know we have a mind. How many honestly think they are the same thing? Now I’m not saying the brain is useless, just that these ‘experts’ are way off base if they think that the brain is all there is to thought.

Here’s a mean trick I like to play on one who is convinced that the brain does all their thinking. You can do it to someone else. Ask them to close their eyes. Have them imagine a cat. Once they are, ask them to change the color of the cat. Do this a few times until they are sure they are changing the color of the cat. Now as them, “What is looking at the cat?” You can follow up with “And where are you?” (Or the really nasty one, “In relation to your body, where are you?) This can produce all sorts of nifty reactions. I had one poor guy wrapped up with this for over a week. After about 8 days he came back and said, “I give up, where am I when I look at the cat?” He thought it was a riddle! I just smiled and told him to think about it until he figured it out.

Of course there's enough "room". DVD, please. Our memories aren't recorded in MPEG-2, thank you very much! The mind is just our simple way of expressing we don't understand about the brain and the nervous system in general. Yet. We've moved on from believing conciousness might reside in the heart, or the stomach. We can observe chemical and electrical changes in real time as the mind performs various functions. There are all sorts of tricks we can play on our minds, but that doesn't mean consciousness is something mystical; it only means we are creatures of habit and pattern who do very little thinking about thinking and who are easily fooled by our own assumptions. Or do optical illusions mean our eyes aren't all there are visual input? Oliver Sacks's books amply illustrate how the mind is connected to the brain in ways we do not comprehend, but connected nonetheless.

We don't store memories at anything *near* the resolution of DVD. Studies on memory have shown that what we believe to be amazingly vivid memories are actually more like sketchy vector maps, with a few essential characteristics actually remembered, and the rest filled in with our assumptions about what the "filler" should be like.

For instance, we might remember two people talking on a beautiful day. We would probably remember some of the words, and possibly the mood. We might also remember broad general characteristics of the landscape (for instance, the presence of a tree). We would then draw on our assumptions of what trees and landscapes look like when we later reconstruct that memory.

A DVD would take, say, a gig to encode the landscape in a lengthy one-hour conversation. Our encoding is more along the order of 20-30 bytes, if that. It's a hell of a lot more economical, but contains a hell of a lot less information. But most of that information is (to us) irrelevant junk anyway. A computer must retain everything because it has no concept of meaning or significance.

The brain is, by and large, nearly all there is to conscious thought. "Mind" is simply how we describe certain conceptual relationships between the different functional aspects of the brain.

To further belabor the point, if we had DVD-like memory, then the following question would make sense - "What was the color of pixel (375, 205) of the landscape on the 2138th millisecond of the eighteenth minute of the conversation?"

Obviously, it does not.

Our memory recording capacity is perfect. We record everything. The problem is in the recalling of these memories. With practice, you can recall a memory so well it’s as though you were reliving it again.

The arguments that we don’t remember everything or that our memory is lossy is based on the idea that memories ‘fade’ and people ‘forget’. You only forget what you want to!

Now to your numbers. 20 to 30 bytes for one hour’s worth of memories? No way. It takes more memory than that just to store the words on one line of this post!

We as a species have only been able to digitally render visual, audio and numerical/text data. We haven’t even begun to figure out how to digitally store a small or a feeling yet you can and do remember and re-experience both and more.

If you read carefully, you'll see that I was talking about 20-30 bytes for recording the essential characteristics of the landscape only. We would pay more attention to the encoding of the words, because words have far more meaning to us.

As for your assertion that "our memory recording capacity is perfect," it would be awesome if you could provide citations from peer-reviewed memory journals to back that up!

I would tend to side with macuga.
I have come back to places from my childhood, or found old pictures and in many cases, much to my surprise, I found reality differs a lot from my memories.
Or memories on fundamental aspects from two different witness are found to be very different
(My wife and I are constantly in disagreement over several details of our wedding, honeymoon, etc.)
Uncle X did not attend our wedding reception, though I had always said he did. Here is what happened.

1. Somebody asked me if he had attended.
2. I tried to recall and had a memory of him in what I think was my GRADUATION reception.
3. But I was not sure, so at that moment I said: yes, he did.
4. From that point on, for some weird process of my mind, I COULD HAVE SWEARED he had attended our wedding graduation. I fabricated a memory, filling in the spaces from sketchy, imperfect information.

Yes. Memory is a complex thing. While "photographic memory" exists under some conditions, it is the exception, not the norm. 99% of the time, people break down a memory into its conceptual components and then store those.

That is why you get errors in reconstruction; memory depends on how people conceptualize the situation, and their particular assumptions about it. If the assumptions are incorrect, the memory will be "wrong."

CRZ is right. Our mind captures more than what DVD can do. While they can only record physical side of the event, our minds can record both physical and emotional sides as well. And we cherish those past memories as if they have happened yesterday.

I don't think anyone claimed DVD's can record emotions. That would be a bizarre claim, to say the least.

The only point was that - contrary to CRZ's claim - the "raw data" stored by DVD, and by our memory, are two completely different things.

By the way, I recall reading a study that showed that even our memory for emotions isn't that good. Unless the emotions are particularly strong or memorable, they will not be remembered better than other aspects of our world - which is to say, not very well.

That's a discussion about emotion, not memory. No one is denying that there are many brain functions we don't understand. To borrow a commonly quoted misconception about brain use, we only understand 10% of what goes on up there. But we have detailed maps of where different types of memories reside, for example.

It's the idea that there is something extra-physical that I'm taking issue with. That is, a mind or consciousness that is not connected or based on the body. This is the "we don't understand it yet so it must be inexplicable" method. Many very smart people were absolutely sold on phrenology not too long ago. Now we have fMRI and a dozen other ways to watch electrical and chemical activity in the brain. In 50 years it will only be that much further along. We'll have memory iPods. Those who find comfort in a belief in a "soul" will always do so of course, but such belief shouldn't be used as an excuse to put our heads, brains included, in the sand.

Smyslov seems to carry an unreasonable bias against computers. Is it justifiable to equate the computer to the Devil and claim they don't create anything? How about the fact that the computer plays exactly how its programmers, human beings, tell it to. Trying to sell flawed chess combinations as divine simply because they were produced by humans and the strong play of machines as some form of mindless calculation is ridiculous.

I agree with Mig's and macuga's statements: CRZ is definitely off base in his claims. Mig is of course absolutely right to deny the separation between "mind" and "brain" - any other view than this, while perhaps common especially among religious people, is far from the accepted scientific knowledge. Macuga also effectively refutes the idea that our brains are somehow storing DVD quality video of every second of our life. I'd like to add that even if they were, even if they somehow had a way to encode things in MPEG-2 format, they could probably actually do it for quite a substantial amount of time, in terms of raw data capacity. There are 10's of billions of neurons in a single brain, and you only have to observe that numerous texts have been written on even just a single neuron to realize that the lone neuron has vastly more storage and information handling capacity than a simple "1 or 0" dot on a hard drive.

I'd be more caucious about the solidity of "scientific knowledge". However it is perfectly understandable that humans are desperate to have an 'explaination' to everything because lack of knowledge generates fear. Even where it is prima facie inexplicable we still do our best to 'explain it away' with our simplistic '0's and '1's. If anyone's putting their head in the sand it is certainly not the people of God.

I agree - but I personally happen to worship Loki, the fire bringer. I think it makes sense that he created the universe. It feels right.

Sounds like you could do with a visit to the town of Lout, you are going to join them one way or another.

That post from Jools was interesting, insightful and relevant. Mig- have you ever thought of hiring a second? (All the top players have them!)
You come back from your globe trotting, exhausted-have your second write an article or two. Kasparnot

Now now, CRZ. I'm sure you can find a more receptive audience for your zen koans somewhere.

CRZ - you'll regret your words come Ragnarok.

Maybe Kasparnot, but I don't think I'd hire a second who copy-pastes copyrighted material from other sites! Just a link usually suffices...


I know he meant well, and it was a nice piece, but fair use is best. I especially don't want to annoy others in the chess community by having their material show up here without even a link or credit.

Actually, Oliver Sacks posits that those people who engage in mental exercises end up with a reserve of cognitive ability, which can help compensate for the effects of aging. Actually, those who solve word puzzles, such as Crossword Puzzles, seem to score better in their dotage, with respect to warding off senility--and even mitigating, postponing, or preventing Alzheimer's

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    This page contains a single entry by Mig published on November 17, 2005 6:24 AM.

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