If you were to investigate the brain of a chess expert, where would you look? Would you look in an area at the bottom of the brain, called the fusifrom face area (FFA), which is thought to be important for facial as opposed to object recognition? This does not sound like a region that would be involved in playing chess. Yet, in a recent article in the Journal of Neuroscience, several investigators used fMRI to monitor the activity of the FFA while subjects, both expert and casual chess players, viewed and interpreted the position of pieces on a chess board.
In all subjects, the FFA was activated to a greater extent when they viewed faces than when they viewed a chess board. No differences were seen between the experts and casual chess players. These results are consistent with previous research and with the important role of the FFA in facial recognition. When viewing chess stimuli, however, the FFA was activated more in experts than in casual players. Simply viewing a chess board with the pieces in the starting position created greater FFA activation in the experts. This difference in activation increased even further when the two groups were asked to analyze the position of chess pieces located on different squares on the board.