Brain differences reflecting expertise

April, 2011

A new imaging study reveals what’s going on in the brains of expert shogi players that’s different from those of amateurs. It’s all about developing instincts.

The mental differences between a novice and an expert are only beginning to be understood, but two factors thought to be of importance are automaticity (the process by which a procedure becomes so practiced that it no longer requires conscious thought) and chunking (the unitizing of related bits of information into one tightly integrated unit — see my recent blog post on working memory). A new study adds to our understanding of this process by taking images of the brains of professional and amateur players of the Japanese chess-like game of shogi.

Eleven professional, 9 high- and 8 low-rank amateur players of shogi were presented with patterns of different types (opening shogi patterns, endgame shogi patterns, random shogi patterns, chess, Chinese chess, as well as completely different stimuli — scenes, faces, other objects, scrambled patterns).

It was found that the board game patterns, but not the other patterns, stimulated activity in the posterior precuneus of all shogi players. This activity, for the professional players, was particularly strong for shogi opening and endgame patterns, and activity in the precuneus was the only regional activity that showed a difference between these patterns and the other board game patterns. For the amateurs however, there was no differential activity for the endgame patterns, and only the high-rank amateurs showed differential activity for the opening shogi patterns. Opening patterns tend to be more stereotyped than endgame patterns (i.e., endgame patterns are better reflections of expertise).

The players were then asked for the best next-move in a series of shogi problems (a) when they only had one second to study the pattern, and (b) when they had eight seconds. When professional players had only a second to study the problem, the caudate nucleus was active. When they had 8 seconds, activity was confined to the cerebral cortex, as it was for the amateurs in both conditions. This activity in the caudate, which is part of the basal ganglia, deep within the brain, is thought to reflect the development of an intuitive response.

The researchers therefore suggest that this type of intuition, an instinct achieved through training and experience, is what marks an expert. Making part of the process unconscious not only makes it faster, but frees up valuable space in working memory for aspects that need conscious thought.

The posterior precuneus directly connects with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which in turn connects to the caudate. There is also a direct connection between the precuneus and the caudate. This precuneus-caudate circuit is therefore suggested as a key part of what makes a board-game expert an expert.


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