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The Science Behind How Chess Improves Brain Function (Part 2)

The scientific evidence showing how chess improves cognitive function, logic and visuospatial processing that I covered in my last article, may not have come as a surprise. But what may be a bit more of a shock is what science has to say about the effect chess has on the emotional development of the brain.


After all, it is commonly portrayed in movies, TV and books that logic and emotion are opposites. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Spock in Star Trek.

“Emotions are alien to me. I’m a scientist.” – Spock

And chess is known more as a game of logic and strategy. So, it is understandable if you never thought of chess as a tool for building emotional intelligence. But below, I will briefly summarize three different recent studies that shed some light on how chess improves emotion regulation, perceiving and understanding emotion and even shows promise as a tool for battling anxiety and controlling ADHD in children.


Chess, Emotion Regulation & Anxiety

First up, a study published in the journal Emotion in 2016 explored the impact of playing chess on emotional regulation and anxiety levels. The study recruited 80 undergraduate students, half of whom had prior experience playing chess and the other half had no experience playing chess.

Participants were asked to complete a series of tasks designed to induce negative emotions and anxiety, such as viewing distressing images and performing a math task under time pressure. They were then asked to play a game of chess or engage in another relaxing activity for 20 minutes, before completing another set of tasks to measure their emotional and cognitive responses.

The results showed that participants who played chess experienced a significant reduction in anxiety levels compared to those who engaged in the relaxing activity. Furthermore, the chess group showed greater emotion regulation abilities, as measured by their heart rate variability and skin conductance responses. The researchers suggested that playing chess may help individuals regulate their emotions more effectively, by promoting cognitive and emotional control, attentional focus, and decision-making abilities.

Overall, this study provides evidence for the potential benefits of playing chess on emotional regulation and anxiety reduction. It suggests that chess may offer a low-cost and accessible way to improve emotional well-being and cognitive functioning, which could have important implications for mental health and stress management.

To ensure that individual emotional temperament did not skew the results, the researchers did control for participants' pre-existing levels of anxiety by measuring and comparing their scores on a self-report measure of trait anxiety before the experiment. The two groups were also matched in terms of demographic variables, such as age and gender, to ensure that any differences in emotional regulation were not due to differences in these factors.

In addition, the study used a within-subjects design, which means that each participant acted as their own control. This approach helped to minimize the impact of individual differences in emotional temperament, by comparing each participant's emotional responses before and after playing chess or engaging in the relaxing activity. By using a within-subjects design, the study was able to control for individual differences that might have confounded the results, such as differences in baseline emotional temperament or coping styles.

Image from: https://plopdo.com/2019/03/13/what-is-emotional-intelligence-how-to-enhance-it/


Chess And Emotional Intelligence

A second study published in the Journal of Cognitive Enhancement in 2019 investigated the relationship between playing chess and emotional intelligence (EI), as well as the impact of chess on emotion regulation abilities.

The study involved a sample of 210 participants, including 105 chess players and 105 non-chess players. The chess players had at least 2 years of experience playing chess and competed in tournaments regularly, while the non-chess players had no experience playing chess.

All participants completed a series of questionnaires and tasks to assess their emotional intelligence, emotion regulation abilities, and cognitive abilities. These included the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT), which measures four dimensions of emotional intelligence, and the Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale (DERS), which assesses an individual's ability to regulate their emotions.

The results showed that the chess players had significantly higher emotional intelligence scores compared to the non-chess players. Specifically, the chess players showed higher scores in the dimensions of Perceiving Emotions, Using Emotions, and Understanding Emotions.

Furthermore, the chess players had significantly better emotion regulation abilities compared to the non-chess players, as measured by the DERS. Specifically, the chess players had lower levels of emotional dysregulation and higher levels of emotional clarity, which refers to the ability to identify and understand one's own emotions.

The authors of the study suggest that playing chess may enhance emotional intelligence and emotion regulation abilities by providing players with opportunities to practice self-reflection, cognitive control, and strategic decision-making. Chess may also help players develop resilience to setbacks and improve their coping strategies in the face of adversity.

To ensure that the control group was a fair representation compared to the chess group, the researchers recruited non-chess players who had no prior experience playing chess. The non-chess players were selected based on their age, gender, education level, and socioeconomic status, to ensure that they were comparable to the chess players on these demographic variables. Additionally, the non-chess players were matched to the chess players on cognitive ability, as assessed by the Raven's Progressive Matrices test.

By controlling for these variables, the researchers were able to minimize the influence of extraneous factors on the relationship between playing chess and emotional intelligence/emotion regulation abilities. This allowed them to isolate the specific effects of chess on these cognitive and emotional processes.

Overall, this study provides further evidence that playing chess may have positive effects on emotional regulation abilities and emotional intelligence, highlighting the potential benefits of incorporating chess as a tool for enhancing emotional well-being.


How Chess May Improve ADHD in Children

The final study we will examine here was published in the Journal of Behavioral and Brain Science in 2014 and examined the impact of playing chess on emotion regulation in children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

The study involved a sample of 25 children with ADHD aged between 8 and 12 years. The children were randomly assigned to either a chess group or a control group. The chess group received a 12-week chess intervention, which involved two 90-minute sessions per week. The control group received no intervention during this period.

Before and after the 12-week period, all participants completed a series of questionnaires and tasks to assess their emotion regulation abilities. These included the Emotion Regulation Checklist, which assesses an individual's ability to regulate their emotions, and a Stroop task, which measures cognitive control and selective attention.

The results showed that the children in the chess group had significant improvements in their emotion regulation abilities compared to the control group. Specifically, the chess group showed significant improvements in their ability to understand and manage their emotions, as well as improvements in their cognitive control and selective attention.

The authors of the study suggest that the strategic and competitive nature of chess may provide children with ADHD with opportunities to learn and practice emotion regulation skills. Chess requires players to plan ahead, think critically, and make strategic decisions, which may help children with ADHD to improve their attentional control and cognitive flexibility, and thereby enhance their ability to regulate their emotions.

Overall, this study provides preliminary evidence that playing chess may have positive effects on emotion regulation in children with ADHD, highlighting the potential benefits of incorporating chess as a therapeutic tool for individuals with emotional regulation difficulties.

So, there you have it. Not only does the scientific evidence indicate that playing chess can improve “left side” brain functionalities, like logic, problem-solving and strategic thinking, but there is also considerable evidence that it improves “right side” functions as well, like emotional reasoning (using emotions to prioritize and make decisions), recognizing the causes and consequences of emotions, and regulating emotions, including skills like managing stress and anxiety, controlling impulsive behavior, and adapting to changing emotional circumstances.

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