It may take years of hard work to become a chess grandmaster, but it gives a real boost to the brain – for working out chess problems, at least. It seems expert chess players use both sides of their brain to process chess tasks, rather than just one.

Merim Bilalic at the University of Tübingen in Germany used fMRI to scan the brains of eight international chess players and eight novices while they identified either geometrical shapes or whether the pieces on a chess board were in a check situation. The expert players were quicker at solving the chess problem, activating areas on both sides of their brains as they did so. The novices used just the left side.

Bilalic had expected the expert players to use a faster version of the processing mechanism used by novices. “But once the usual brain structures were engaged, the experts utilised additional complementary structures in the other half, to execute processes in parallel,” he says.

This parallel processing didn’t occur when the expert players carried out the geometry task, suggesting that it is limited to practised skills. “It shows that there really is no short cut to expertise,” says Bilalic.

Journal reference: PLoS One, in press




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