The Brains of Board Gamers

One of my interests outside of chemistry is in board games, so I was struck by this article in Science. Perhaps slightly embarrassingly, I actually came across it as a board game article looking at science rather than the other way around.

The authors used fMRI to look at the brain activity of various people working on shogi problems (shogi being a chess variant widely played in Japan). There was a group of talented amateurs and a group of professionals and the study looked at the differences between the two groups. Some of the results are very interesting.

Firstly, they see that the professional players make greater use of a part of their brain called the caudate head, which is implicated in learning and memory – which makes sense. The study found that as the problems got more difficult, the professional player made a greater use of their caudate and the amateurs used it less. In other words, the professionals used their built up knowledge, the patterns in the game to formulate their answers, but the amateurs tried harder to think deeply about the problem from first principles. In short, the pros make greater use of their intuition and the amateurs less – they don’t trust their intuition to give them the answer.

They saw this from another direction, when asking the participants if they were confident in their answer. When they were less confident, the professionals were seen to use their caudate more – in other words, their intuition. The authors noted that the professionals were much more likely to get the answer right too: about twice as likely. So their gut feeling is serving them well – presumably it has served them well prior to this and they trust it now. which is part of how they got to be professional players rather than decent amateurs.

Although this is a single study and involves just Japanese chess as its area of study, I think this applies to other situations. Even in just games, I have seen in myself, playing a game I do not know well, getting hung up over what move to make. Analysis paralysis, it is often called. You don’t know which move to make so you dither over it. When I am more confident over my mastery of a game, this happens less and even if I am not sure of the best move, my gut feeling tells me which of my options is likely to be the best.

One of the reasons I like board games is the opportunity to analyze different situations (game positions) and figure out the best way to manage resources, engage the game systems and come up with the best strategy to make the best move, either in the long or short term. It is interesting that the best way to approach a problem is not by brute force analysis but by being familiar with the patterns and typical behavior of the system and trusting intuition over logic, even in a game as dominated by logic as shogi.

One comment on “The Brains of Board Gamers

  1. Carly Miller says:


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