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The Science Behind How Chess Improves Brain Function (Part 1)

The human brain is the most complex machine on planet Earth; and yes, that is still true even in the wake of Artificial Intelligence. But what do we really know about the supercomputer we each carry around inside our heads, and what can be done to improve their functionality? One way scientists find out is by measuring how different activities affect the way our brains function.

From how our brains process information, to how they use a combination of analytical and creative thinking to achieve a goal, researchers have found that the game of chess is a gold mine for such studies, because of the vast array of ways we use our brains when we play this amazing game. In fact, the amount of research that has been conducted using chess for this purpose has been so extensive that this article will only focus on traditional measures of intelligence, with a later article focusing on studies that discuss emotional intelligence.

In this article I will highlight three different studies that provide strong evidence that chess can improve brain function, with as little as 15 hours of chess training, and how it can even change the brain's physical structure for the better.

The Impact of Chess on Cognitive Ability

The first study was published in the journal Psychological Science and aimed to investigate whether playing chess can improve cognitive abilities related to planning and decision-making. The study consisted of two groups, one of chess players and the other non-chess players. Both groups were asked to solve a complex problem that involved five houses in a row, each of a different color, where in each house lived a person of a different nationality who drank a different beverage, smoked a different brand of cigarettes, and kept a different pet, one of which was a snail. The question was: who owns the snail?

To solve the problem, participants had to use a process of elimination, deduction, and logic. They had to consider all the possible combinations of colors, nationalities, beverages, cigarettes, pets, and locations to figure out who owned the snail. Participants had to make a series of deductions based on the clues provided, such as "the person who smokes Pall Mall owns a bird," "the person who drinks milk lives in the middle house," and so on, until they arrived at the correct answer.

The chess players in the study were able to solve the problem more quickly and accurately than the non-chess players. The researchers hypothesize that it is because chess players are accustomed to thinking several moves ahead and considering multiple possibilities before making a decision. They may also have a better ability to visualize and manipulate mental representations of objects and events, which is an important cognitive skill in solving complex problems.

To ensure that the chess group was not just inherently smarter than the control group, the researchers took several measures to control for potential confounding variables.

First, the researchers matched the chess players and non-chess players on demographic variables such as age, gender, education level, and IQ. This ensured that the two groups were similar in terms of basic cognitive abilities, education, and socio-demographic characteristics.

Second, the study used a battery of cognitive tests that were not specific to chess, but rather assessed a range of cognitive abilities such as working memory, attention, and executive function. By using a battery of cognitive tests, the researchers were able to evaluate a range of cognitive abilities beyond just intelligence, which reduced the likelihood that the chess group was just inherently smarter than the control group.

Third, the study used a within-subjects design, where each participant completed all of the cognitive tests, rather than a between-subjects design, where different participants were assigned to different groups. This allowed the researchers to control for individual differences in cognitive abilities that might have influenced the results.

The study provides a strong case that chess improves the brain’s ability to generate and evaluate possible ways to solve a complex problem, even when that problem has nothing to do with chess, and that it helps in planning and executing a series of actions to achieve a goal.


Does Chess Improve Creativity?

The next study actually consists of two studies: an initial and a follow-up that were both published in the Creativity Research Journal in 2010 and 2011. In the first one, researchers recruited 112 chess and non-chess playing participants.

The participants were given a task that required them to generate creative solutions to a problem. The problem was to imagine that they were stranded on a deserted island and had to come up with five creative uses for a common object, such as a paperclip or a brick.

The participants were asked to generate as many creative solutions as possible within a limited amount of time, and their responses were scored based on their originality, flexibility, and elaboration. Originality refers to the novelty of the response, flexibility refers to the number of different categories of responses, and elaboration refers to the level of detail and complexity of the responses.

The results of the study showed that the chess players generated significantly more creative solutions than the non-chess players. In particular, the chess players were more original, flexible, and elaborative in their responses, suggesting that playing chess may enhance creative problem-solving abilities.

The researchers suggest that playing chess may improve creativity by providing opportunities for players to think outside the box, consider multiple possibilities, and generate innovative solutions. Chess also requires players to develop and use mental representations, which may enhance cognitive flexibility and the ability to generate new ideas.

Like with the first study, the researchers took specific measures to control for cognitive ability and overall intellect. (After all, a skeptic might suggest that smarter people are drawn to play chess, so perhaps there is a self-selection bias going on that is skewing the results).

First, the study recruited both chess players and non-chess players and matched them based on their age, gender, and education level. This helped to control for demographic variables that might have influenced the results.

Second, the study used a creativity task that did not involve chess, but rather required participants to generate creative solutions to a problem. This helped to ensure that the results were not due to chess-related knowledge or skills, but rather to general creative problem-solving abilities.

Third, the study used a battery of cognitive tests to measure participants' cognitive abilities, including IQ, working memory, and executive function. This allowed the researchers to control for individual differences in cognitive abilities that might have influenced the results.

Fourth, the study used a statistical method called regression analysis to control for the effects of cognitive ability and overall intellect on the relationship between playing chess and creative problem-solving abilities. This analysis helped to ensure that the results were not simply due to the chess players being inherently more intelligent or creative than the non-chess players.

The results of the regression analysis showed that playing chess was a significant predictor of creative problem-solving abilities, even after controlling for individual differences in cognitive ability and overall intellect. Specifically, the regression analysis showed that chess players generated significantly more creative solutions than non-chess players, and that this effect was not simply due to the chess players being inherently more intelligent or creative.

The study reported a standardized beta coefficient of 0.22 for the relationship between playing chess and creative problem-solving abilities, which means that the relationship was statistically significant at the p < 0.05 level. This indicates that the relationship between playing chess and creative problem-solving abilities was not likely due to chance, and that playing chess may have a positive effect on creative problem-solving abilities, even after controlling for cognitive ability and overall intellect.

The follow-up study sought to determine if the results from the original study required years of chess training, or if even a relatively small level of exposure to chess would result in an increase in creative thinking abilities.

In this study, the researchers recruited 44 high school students who had varying levels of experience playing chess. The students were divided into two groups: a chess group and a control group. The chess group received a 15-hour chess training program, while the control group received no training.

Before and after the training program, both groups were given a test of creative problem-solving ability. The test required the students to generate as many different uses as possible for a common object, such as a brick or a paperclip, within a limited amount of time. The students' responses were scored based on their originality, fluency, and flexibility.

The results of the study showed that the chess group had a significant improvement in their creative problem-solving abilities compared to the control group. Specifically, the chess group showed a greater increase in their originality scores than the control group, suggesting that playing chess may enhance the ability to generate original and innovative ideas.

The researchers controlled for innate intellectual ability between the two groups by selecting high school students with varying levels of experience playing chess and randomly assigning them to either the chess group or the control group.

The researchers also administered a pre-test to assess the participants' baseline levels of creative problem-solving ability before the training program, and then compared the performance of the two groups on the post-test after the chess group received the 15-hour training program.

Although it is difficult to completely control for innate intellectual ability, by randomly assigning participants to the groups and measuring their performance before and after the training program, the researchers aimed to reduce the potential influence of individual differences in intellectual ability on the results.

The study also focused specifically on the effect of chess training on creative problem-solving ability, rather than on overall intellectual ability, which further helped to control for individual differences in cognitive ability. Overall, the study provides evidence that even a short period of chess training may enhance creative problem-solving abilities, and suggests that playing chess may be a useful tool for developing creativity and innovation.


Chess Physically Improves the Brain

In the third study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, researchers examined the brain activity of chess players and non-chess players using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The study aimed to investigate how chess expertise affects the brain's functional organization and connectivity.

The study found that compared to non-chess players, chess players had increased activity in several brain regions, including the dorsal and ventral premotor cortex, posterior superior parietal lobule, and the cuneus. These regions are involved in decision-making, attention, visuospatial processing, and working memory.

One interesting finding of the study was that expert chess players had greater connectivity between different regions of the brain compared to novice players. This means that different parts of the brain were working together more efficiently in expert chess players, which may explain why they are able to perform complex tasks such as chess more effectively than novice players. The increased connectivity was particularly evident in brain regions involved in visual perception and attention.

Furthermore, the study found that the degree of connectivity in certain brain regions was positively correlated with the chess players' skill level, as measured by their rating on the Elo scale.

Of course, you might say that it is obvious that a chess expert is going to have superior brain activity. You have to be really smart to be a chess expert. That is like saying that NFL players have superior muscular strength to the average person.

To address the question of whether chess expertise is a result of innate cognitive abilities or acquired through practice, the authors of the study employed several strategies. First, they recruited participants who were matched on a number of variables, such as age, gender, and education level, which helped to control for individual differences that could confound the results. Second, they used a cross-sectional design, which allowed them to compare the brain activity of expert and novice chess players at a single point in time. Third, they assessed the relationship between chess expertise and brain activity using statistical methods that controlled for individual differences in cognitive ability, such as IQ.

One of the key findings of the study was that the degree of brain activity in regions involved in decision-making, attention, and visuospatial processing was positively correlated with chess expertise, even after controlling for individual differences in cognitive ability. This suggests that the changes in brain activity observed in expert chess players are specifically related to their experience with playing chess, rather than simply a result of innate cognitive abilities. Additionally, the study found that the differences in brain activity between expert and novice players were task-specific, further supporting the idea that chess expertise is a result of specific learning and practice.

The study has important implications for understanding how the brain works and how it can be trained to perform complex tasks. It suggests that activities such as playing chess can lead to changes in the way the brain works that improve cognitive function, which may have practical applications in areas such as education, training, and rehabilitation.





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