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How your brain picks the best move

This fMRI scan highlights activity in the caudate nucleus of a professional shogi player.
This fMRI scan highlights activity in the caudate nucleus of a professional shogi player.Wan et al. / Science / AAAS
Functional MRI brain scans show activation in an area of the brain known as the precuneus, as exhibited here by a professional shogi player when presented with a board game pattern.
Functional MRI brain scans show activation in an area of the brain known as the precuneus, as exhibited here by a professional shogi player when presented with a board game pattern.Wan et al. / Science / AAAS

If you have a knack for knowing just the right move to make — in a board game or in other walks of life — it might be because your brain has built up a special kind of connection.

Researchers at Japan's RIKEN Brain Science Institute report evidence that the professional players of a chesslike board game from Japan, known as shogi, have brains that crackle with activity in two areas that are less active in amateurs. Their findings are published in this week's issue of the journal Science.

The activity was monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, while professionals and amateurs were shown pictures of shogi board patterns. Shogi is regarded as a game as cerebral and as tricky to master as chess — perhaps even more tricky, because players can add pieces captured from an opponent to their own side. The professionals were more adept at intuitively recognizing the "next best move" for a given pattern, but the really interesting part of this game had to do with what went on in their brains.

This fMRI scan highlights activity in the caudate nucleus of a professional shogi player.
This fMRI scan highlights activity in the caudate nucleus of a professional shogi player.Wan et al. / Science / AAAS

The pros' brains showed more activity in the precuneus region of the parietal lobe, which has been linked to pattern recognition, as well as in the head of the caudate nucleus, deep within the brain. The caudate nucleus has been previously linked with cognitive functions, and game-playing in particular In fact, a different team of researchers reported last year that people who showed an aptitude for arcade games tended to have a bigger caudate nucleus (along with other structures) than less skilled players.

The research team found that the precuneus-caudate connection showed up consistently when professionals were asked to come up with a rapid-fire choice of moves, but not as much for the amateurs. "These results suggest that the precuneus-caudate circuit implements the automatic, yet complicated, processes of board-pattern perception and next-move generation in board game experts," the researchers reported.

Does this mean good gamers are born, not made? And do these results apply only to shogi players? In an e-mail interview, I asked one of the leaders of the research team, Keiji Tanaka, to discuss the findings in greater depth. Here's an edited Q&A:

Shogi is a chesslike board game that is commonly played in Japan.
Shogi is a chesslike board game that is commonly played in Japan.JNTO

Cosmic Log: Last year, I wrote about research from a team led by the University of Pittsburgh's Kirk Erickson that indicated a correlation between skill in playing an arcade-type video game and the relative volume of the caudate nucleus and putamen. This study seems to confirm the idea that structure of the caudate nucleus plays a role in game-playing proficiency … would you agree?

Keiji Tanaka: Firstly, we measured the volume of caudate nucleus and compared the measure between professional and amateur players. There was no difference. Secondly, the game of Erickson et al. is largely sensory-motor, whereas board games are purely cognitive. There is thus little commonality between the two "games," although they are both called games. Thirdly, the learning examined in Erickson et al. took place within 24 hours. In our case, even the amateur players have spent many years learning the play, although their training is less extensive than that of professional players. The extent of learning is many orders different between our case and Erickson et al. Therefore, our results are not at all related to those of Erickson et al.

Q: You and your colleagues suggest that expert players take advantage of neural connections between the precuneus and the caudate nucleus to recognize a game pattern quickly and intuitively arrive at a "next best move." Did you see evidence of a temporal progression, or was the experiment not designed to chart the flow of neural impulses in that way? Did you arrive at this hypothesis merely by considering the roles traditionally assigned to those areas of the brain

A: There was significantly stronger positive correlation between precuneus activations and caudate activations during the quick-generation task in professional players, compared with correlations during other tasks in professional players, and compared with correlations during the quick generation task in amateur players. This is the evidence from our own experiments.

Our results do not indicate the direction of signal flow (from the precuneus to the caudate or opposite).  The previous anatomical studies (in monkeys) showed that there are direct projections from the precuneus to the part of the caudate nucleus. Also, it has been shown that the precuneus has projections from the visual cortical areas in the occipital cortex, but the caudate nucleus does not have projections from the visual cortical areas. Based on these previous findings, we suggest that the signal flows from the precuneus to the caudate.

Q: What further experiments are you planning to follow up on the suggestions raised in this paper?

A: We are conducting a few follow-up experiments, but we would like to introduce them after we get results.

Q: Are there implications for neuroscience beyond game-playing? For example, will learning about this particular process with Shogi shed light on the way in which experts in other fields (business, for example) make seemingly instinctual snap decisions about successful strategies in other scenarios?

A: We assume that the same circuit (precuneus to caudate) is essential for other types of cognitive expertise — for example, chess, MRI reading by radiologists, solving troubles in computer networks, and auditing. However, we have no direct evidence. The research was supported by Fujitsu, which is one of the biggest computer companies in Japan. They want to get hints from our study about the best ways to educate system engineers who solve the troubles in computer networks. The engineers largely depend on intuition.

Q: Are expert shogi-players born or made? Do your results suggest that proficiency at determining the "next best move" is an innate faculty, hard-wired into the brains of experts? Or could it be that experts have strengthened the neural connections for instinctive play through practice? Some of your results point to a correlation between caudate activity in amateurs and the speed with which they select the best move, which might suggest that some brains are naturally built to play shogi better. What’s your view on this "nature vs. nurture" aspect of game-playing proficiency?

A: Our results do not give a direct answer to the nature-vs.-nurture question. However, previous psychological studies have shown that the expertise is specific to the domain. Chess players are super only in chess, MRI-reading experts are super only in MRI reading, and so on. Also, the psychological studies have shown that the development of expertise requires a long period of training, more than 10 years. These characteristics — domain specificity and the long period of learning that's required — are more consistent with the nurture idea: Expertise is the result of long, serious training.

If that's not food for thought, I don't know what is. Feel free to cogitate over this research and add your comments below.

More on brains and games:

In addition to Tanaka, authors of "The Neural Basis of Intuitive Best Next-Move Generation in Board Game Experts" include Xiaohong Wan, Hironori Nakatani, Kenichi Ueno, Takeshi Asamizuya and Kang Cheng. The work was supported by Fujitsu Laboratories and a grant-in-aid from Japan's Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. The Japan Shogi Association participated in the study.

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