Is Chess a Right-Brain Activity?


According to this New Scientist article, MRI analysis shows that chess grandmasters’ brains work differently from those of chess novices, when deciding whether any of the pieces in a given position are in check.

“Bilalic [the researcher] had expected the expert players to use a faster version of the processing mechanism used by novices.”

I find this assumption surprising, especially because Merim Bilalic appears to be a FIDE Master ranked 76th in his country. Of course that could just be a coincidence…

It is widely known that grandmasters develop a holistic view of the board, instinctively recognizing patterns that they have seen thousands or millions of times before, and interpreting the chess position as a visual map of zones of influence and threat. By contrast, the novice will typically take a more analytical approach, leading to a laborious square-by-square evaluation of the position.

Basically it’s a classic left-brain / right-brain scenario, and the grandmasters are able to recruit both sides of the brain to process the problem intuitively and analytically at the same time. In much the same way, an experienced mathematician will “see” a proof intuitively, in parallel to (or even before) actually working it through step by step.

I’m looking forward to seeing the original research paper when it’s published in PLoS One, and finding out who the grandmasters were who participated in the experiment!

Also it would be interesting to see if there is a correlation between a chess player’s official rating, and their ability to perform well in right-brain (holistic, intuitive) tasks unrelated to chess. Do any readers have pointers to such research? Feel free to comment…

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