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Your Brain on Shogi

Geoffrey Engelstein
United States
New Jersey
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Ludology Host and Dice Tower Contributor
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Back in Dice Tower episode 198 I talked about a study that was done in Japan comparing the activity in brains of professional versus amateur Shogi players.

I wanted to post more details about the study, as I think that the images are quite interesting, but had to work on getting permission from the journal Science, which fortunately, I just received.

The paper is entitled The Neural Basis of Intuitive Best Next-Move Generation in Board Game Experts and was authored by Xiaohong Wan, Hironori Nakatani, Kenichi Ueno, Takeshi Asamizuya, Kang Cheng, and Keiji Tanaka.

The basic idea of the study was to use fMRI imaging to look at brain activity while solving shogi puzzles. As I noted above, the study compared professionals with high-ranked amateurs - quite good players, but not players that did it for a living.

They were given shogi problems that ranged from simple to complex, and gave them only ten seconds to determine their answer. For some of the problems it was impossible to actually figure out the right answer by working through the moves, given the time frame. This was done intentionally, as the authors wanted to study intuitive responses, as opposed to analytical.

There were several interesting results from this study. The first is that there was only one difference between the brains of pros and amateurs. Here's an image showing the difference in brain activity between the two groups:

From gallery of engelstein

This image was created by taking the brain activity of professionals and subtracting the brain activity of the amateurs. So areas that were active in both are removed.

See that small orange area in the middle of the brain? That's the only part that the pros use a lot that amateurs don't. It's called the caudate head.

The caudate head is part of the basal ganglia, which is involved in the formation and performance of habits. The caudate head is specifically involved in mental habits, where the putamen is involved in physical habits.

So that makes sense.

Let's take a look at a graph from the study:

From gallery of engelstein

As I said earlier, the researchers asked questions that ranged from easy to really difficult. They grouped the response times of the participants into four groups, called RT1 to RT4, from quickest to longest. So RT4 had the hardest problems.

The height of the bar represents how much the caudate head was activated. White bars are for the pros, and gray bars for the amateurs.

A few things leap out:

1. In general, pros use the caudate head more than the amateurs

2. As the problems get harder, the pros rely on the caudate head more, the amateurs less.

In other words, as things get tougher to figure out by analytically working through the problem, the pros rely on their habits and pattern recognition. In a word, they go with their intuition.

The amateurs, on the other hand, do not rely on intuition. They try to figure out the problem, even though it gets harder. In a sense, they are less comfortable with their gut instincts when faced with tough choices. The pros are more comfortable with it, or at least have a better idea of how good their ability to read situations is.

Here's another graph looking at the data a different way:

From gallery of engelstein

This is also a graph of caudate head activity, with the white bars representing pros, and grey amateurs.

But for this, after the participant gave an answer, they asked them whether they were confident in their answer. Those are the two groups on the graph (Conf and Unconf).

Again, when they are not confident, the pros use their caudate head (i.e. fall back on intuition), whereas the amateurs do not.

The researchers note that it is highly unlikely that the professionals have seen these exact same positions before. And yet given the timeframe to answer the question they cannot be definitively figuring out the answer (and their own confidence levels, and involvement of the caudate head supports this).

So the 'habit' and 'intuition' that the pros are using the solve the problems (and they are much more likely to get the right answer than the amateurs - almost double) must be relying on some 'higher level' pattern recognition.

The researchers point out that other experiments have pointed to 'goal-directed' pattern recognition. The concept is that the pros have an intuition of what the final checkmate position will most likely resemble, and then they determine which move will put them closest to that final position.

More research is needed on this, but it definitely highlights the fact that we really do not understand how people that are really good at games, and study them day after day, figure out the best move.

From Science 331, 341 (2011); Reprinted with permission from AAAS. Readers may view, browse, and/or download material for temporary copying purposes only, provided these uses are for noncommercial personal purposes. Except as provided by law, this material may not be further reproduced, distributed, transmitted, modified, adapted, performed, displayed, published, or sold in whole or in part, without prior
written permission from the publisher.
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