Wednesday, July 26, 2006

"Expert Mind" Online

Thanks to reader "Dan" for pointing us to the online version of "Secrets of the Expert Mind" by Philip E. Ross (Scientific American, August 2006) mentioned here last week. It is well worth a read, if only because it does a good job of summarizing many well-known studies of chess skill and of using them to draw potentially useful conclusions about knowledge, learning, and expertise in general. However, while I like some of his conclusions (such as the idea that "experts are made, not born"), I took exception with one important passage. Discussing experiments that showed that grandmaster chess players (while impressive at recalling typical game positions) showed very little advantage over beginners at recalling random chess positions, Ross writes:

"These experiments corroborated earlier studies that had demonstrated convincingly that ability in one area tends not to transfer to another. American psychologist Edward Thorndike first noted this lack of transference over a century ago, when he showed that the study of Latin, for instance, did not improve command of English and that geometric proofs do not teach the use of logic in daily life."

That conclusion seems a bit unwarranted and runs counter to many other studies I've seen showing that when kids learn and improve at chess they gain many benefits which transfer to other areas of learning (see, for instance, Dr. Robert C. Ferguson's website for a good summary). After all, the idea that studying chess improves children's abilities to study generally is one of the basic premises of "chess in the schools" programs worldwide. It seems intuitively to me that, while the law of diminishing returns is bound to kick in at a certain point (probably at the point where you are spending more time on chess than more important matters!), there is at least some gain from chess study that does transfer to other areas. After all, if you look at the chart (not available in the online version) showing the continuum from weak to strong players and their varied abilities to recall random positions, there is some correlation between memory and playing strength (if not as dramatic as with typical game positions). Isn't it possible that chess had some impact on memory generally, even in this specific study that Ross takes to show the opposite? I hope someone involved with chess in the schools will take the time to critique this conclusion more fully....


transformation said...

nice post sir. i, too, am a polyhistor such as yourself.

i work retail, after a senior career on wall street, and practicing architecture. i spend two to three hours a day studying. upper class B/lower A may not come fast, but im on my way.

day after day, in such hard effort, i notice at work that i remember many details, phone numbers, dates, times, im a good manager, but the chess tactics really keeps me sharp. i whip out numerical calculations like ICC bot problems.

its late, so pls allow this short note and well wishes. david
ps im from west caldwell NJ, cooper union graduate.

how goes chess, kind sir?

again, thank you.

Michael Goeller said...

Thanks for the post. I think you are right that chess keeps your mind sharp more generally, and, if nothing else, studying chess gives you good practice in the art of studying.... Perhaps that is one of its biggest benefits for children: it is a fun thing to read about and study, so it provides the motivation necessary to practice studying, which then carries over into other endeavors. Or, at least, that's my intuitive notion of how it works.

Anonymous said...

Interesting point about chess helping in other ares. I wonder if it is because chess makes a person more able at learning in general or is it because skills developed/needed to learn chess are transferable to other things in life. I would imagine it is the latter.