Chess Promotes Active Use of Many Parts of the Brain

Scientists at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes (NINDS) have been able to identify the parts of the brain tournament-level chess players use when doing complex problem solving. According to an article written by Dr. Jordan Grafman and his colleagues, and published in Nature, chess is an “ideal model to help scientists better understand the coordinated work of the brain.”

Chess is an excellent brain game because it uses so many different areas of the brain. This will lead to memory improvement and better brain function all around.

“Imagine yourself as a chess player about to checkmate your opponent,” Grafman said in describing the work of the brain. “You are bringing forth all your knowledge of strategies, along with past experience to make the next move.” When playing chess you visualize the pieces on the board and then separate the colors and figures mentally. “You analyze their placement on the board, access each piece’s value to your next move, and remember the rules of the game in order to proceed,” Grafman explained. “More skilled players will see specific patterns being used that will assist them gaining an advantage over their opponent, you are able to analyze what would happen if you make x move here, or y move there, and what your opponent may do to counter the attack.”

Using a brain imaging technique known as “positron emission tomography” (PET), Grafman and his coworkers were able to separate each of the steps the players took while identifying what part of the brain was used during each stage. A radioactive tracer then recorded the PET scan when a part of the brain was activated for a certain task.

The colors of the pieces and the places on the board activated parts of both sides of the brain known to process visual information. Retrieval of the rules activates two parts of the left side of the brain that indexes memories and an area near the left ear associated with memory storage. Making judgment as to how to get checkmate utilizes both sides of the front of the brain that is essential for planning, and the back of the brain that is important for images.

Experiments like the chess study allow scientists to improve their understanding of how humans make judgments, Grafman said. “The areas in the front of the brain activated in the checkmate judgment stage may be ‘managerial knowledge units,’ which are similar to other types of storage in the brain, but they coordinate a large amount of information in a specific sequence.” He believes the findings in this study will “ultimately be useful in helping people recovering from brain injuries or diseases that affect problem solving and judgment.”

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About the author:

Ron White is a two-time U.S.A. Memory Champion . As a memory keynote speaker he travels the world to speak before large groups or small company seminars, demonstrating his memory skills and teaching others how to improve their memory, and how important a good memory is in all phases of your life.



Nichelli, P., Grafman, J., Pietrini, P., Alway, D., Carton, J. C., Miletich, R. 1994. Brain activity during chess playing. Nature, vol. 369, no. 6477, p. 191.

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