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Expert Chess Players Show Different Brain Activity

January 21, 2011

Researchers at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Japan have discovered evidence that professional players of a chesslike board game known as shogi have brains that show marked activity in two areas that are less active in amateur players.

The professional players use different parts of their brains, the researchers said, which maximize intuition, goal-seeking and pattern-recognition.

The scientists used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to compare the brain activity of amateur and professional players presented with various board patterns when asked to think through their next move.

The results revealed that certain regions of the experts’ brains lit up, while these regions of the amateurs’ brains did not.

When the players were asked to consider their next move, the experts’ brains showed more activity in the precuneus area of the parietal lobe, an area associated with visualizing images and episodic memory.

Furthermore, when pressured to rapidly come up with a move, activity spiked in another region of the brain called the caudate nucleus, in which goal-directed behavior originates.

“This activation did not occur in the amateurs or when either group took their time in planning their next move,” said the researchers, led by Japanese scientist Xiaohong Wan.

The researchers said they believe that experts who train for years in shogi are actually perfecting a circuit between these two regions of the brain, which in turn helps them rapidly recognize the state of the game and select their next move.

“Being ‘intuitive’ indicates that the idea for a move is generated quickly and automatically without conscious search, and the process is mostly implicit,” wrote the researchers in a report about the study.

“This intuitive process occurs routinely in experts, and thus it is different from inspiration, which occurs less frequently and unpredictably.”

Their findings are published in this week’s issue of the journal Science. 

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