Eyes on the Brain

A neurobiologist explores the amazing capacity of the brain to rewire itself at any age

Chess and the Brain

Chess expertise changes the brain in a surprising way.

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.

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Why would an area of the brain devoted to the recognition of faces be activated in chess experts when they view a chess game? To recognize a face, we need to see more than the eyes, nose, and mouth. We must analyze the spatial relationships between all these features. Similarly, an understanding of the spatial relationships between game pieces is crucial for winning at chess. The FFA may be particularly good at recognizing global spatial patterns. Innate circuitry, present at or soon after birth, may bias the FFA to become a facial recognition area, and that role may be bolstered by our lifelong experience with viewing faces and the importance of facial recognition in everyday life. If another demand emerges, however, that requires expert, holistic, spatial processing, the circuitry in the FFA may be honed for that skill as well. Thus, the FFA is recruited by those who are experts at chess.

Our brain is highly adaptable and opportunistic. While certain areas may be wired, from infancy on, for specific functions and skills, novel demands and extensive experience can recruit and perhaps rewire those regions to allow us to develop expertise in all sorts of new and dramatic ways.

Susan R. Barry, Ph.D., is a professor of neurobiology in the Department of Biological Sciences at Mount Holyoke College and the author of Fixing My Gaze (June, 2009).

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