American Go E-Journal


Monday September 6, 2010

Serious study of go causes actual physical changes in the brain. That’s the stunning finding of a Korean group of neuroscientists who studied the difference between “long-term trained players” and“inexperienced controls.”  In their paper, which appears in the August 2010 issue of Neuroimage, Lee et al. report that they found “larger regions of white matter . . . that are related to attentional control, working memory, executive regulation, and problem-solving.” Their findings also suggest that “experts tend to develop a task-specific template for the game, as compared to controls . . . [and] were less likely than were controls to use structures related to load-dependent memory capacity.” In other words, experts don’t think harder, look at more variations or read farther than the rest of us; they use “spatial processes” – pattern recognition – to see better moves than the rest of us immediately. The researchers used a special type of fMRI —voxel-based diffusion-tensor imaging — to compile their data. This is a fairly well-established method: last year British researchers used the same process to show that “motor learning” – in this case, juggling – produced similar changes. The findings that strong players use something like “intuition” to see better moves tends to confirm previous research such as Chase and Simon’s classic 1973 study, where it was discovered that master chess players see more meaningful “chunks” when briefly glancing at a position than “woodpushers.” “Chunk theory” is now a widely accepted way of understanding how trained brains work. Reitman’s 1976 paper furthered our understanding of expert processes by studying an “expert” go player (Jim Kerwin, who went on to become the first Western pro) and then-beginner Bruce Wilcox (later the author of NEMESIS, the first computer go program) and confirming the basic tenets of “chunk theory.” Other research has examined whether go playing brains may have different — and hopefully more desirable — general qualities than non-playing brains.  The Deoksoo Study is one of several suggesting that serious go students may acquire more sophisticated cognitive abilities in other areas. In 2003, Chen et al. showed that go players use many different areas of the brain; similar chess studies have shown more localized activation. Lee et al.’s study takes our understanding one giant step further – high-level cognitive training has a physical impact on the brain, just as hitting the gym does for the body. This finding has enormous implications for the eternal “nature-nurture” debate. The current conventional wisdom is, “We are what we’re born with,” not “We are shaped by our experiences.” The brain’s ability to think clearly, manage emotions and perform the other work that makes us human is seen largely as biological, inborn, brain-based. “Big pharm” ads tell us over and over that the way to fix our depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, ED, etc. is to tweak our brain chemistry with a pill.  Teachers and parents often label struggling students, then begin the quest for the perfect pill that will fix the ADHD, bipolar disorder or whatever. But what if the pills don’t work? If it’s an inborn biological problem, what’s the solution? Fortunately, we now know that certain kinds of experience can actually improve the physical brain.  As the authors say, “long-term Baduk training appears to cause structural brain changes associated with . . . higher-order cognitive capacities, such as learning, abstract reasoning, and self-control, which can facilitate education and cognitive therapies.” Other questions now arise. Are some activities more growth-promoting than others? Probably. Does the brain change more in players who begin at a younger age? Does the increased white matter in go players’ brains just help them to play well, or is the increased “throughput” capacity useful in other areas as well?  One would think so, but there’s no evidence – yet.  To learn more, check out “Go and Cognition” by Peter Shotwell, in the Bob High Memorial Library.
– by Roy Laird; additional reporting by Hajin Lee 3P

Categories: World