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Your Brain on Shogi

Geoffrey Engelstein
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Back in Dice Tower episode 198 I talked about a study that was done in Japan comparing the activity in brains of professional versus amateur Shogi players.

I wanted to post more details about the study, as I think that the images are quite interesting, but had to work on getting permission from the journal Science, which fortunately, I just received.

The paper is entitled The Neural Basis of Intuitive Best Next-Move Generation in Board Game Experts and was authored by Xiaohong Wan, Hironori Nakatani, Kenichi Ueno, Takeshi Asamizuya, Kang Cheng, and Keiji Tanaka.

The basic idea of the study was to use fMRI imaging to look at brain activity while solving shogi puzzles. As I noted above, the study compared professionals with high-ranked amateurs - quite good players, but not players that did it for a living.

They were given shogi problems that ranged from simple to complex, and gave them only ten seconds to determine their answer. For some of the problems it was impossible to actually figure out the right answer by working through the moves, given the time frame. This was done intentionally, as the authors wanted to study intuitive responses, as opposed to analytical.

There were several interesting results from this study. The first is that there was only one difference between the brains of pros and amateurs. Here's an image showing the difference in brain activity between the two groups:

From gallery of engelstein


This image was created by taking the brain activity of professionals and subtracting the brain activity of the amateurs. So areas that were active in both are removed.

See that small orange area in the middle of the brain? That's the only part that the pros use a lot that amateurs don't. It's called the caudate head.

The caudate head is part of the basal ganglia, which is involved in the formation and performance of habits. The caudate head is specifically involved in mental habits, where the putamen is involved in physical habits.

So that makes sense.

Let's take a look at a graph from the study:

From gallery of engelstein


As I said earlier, the researchers asked questions that ranged from easy to really difficult. They grouped the response times of the participants into four groups, called RT1 to RT4, from quickest to longest. So RT4 had the hardest problems.

The height of the bar represents how much the caudate head was activated. White bars are for the pros, and gray bars for the amateurs.

A few things leap out:

1. In general, pros use the caudate head more than the amateurs

2. As the problems get harder, the pros rely on the caudate head more, the amateurs less.


In other words, as things get tougher to figure out by analytically working through the problem, the pros rely on their habits and pattern recognition. In a word, they go with their intuition.

The amateurs, on the other hand, do not rely on intuition. They try to figure out the problem, even though it gets harder. In a sense, they are less comfortable with their gut instincts when faced with tough choices. The pros are more comfortable with it, or at least have a better idea of how good their ability to read situations is.

Here's another graph looking at the data a different way:

From gallery of engelstein


This is also a graph of caudate head activity, with the white bars representing pros, and grey amateurs.

But for this, after the participant gave an answer, they asked them whether they were confident in their answer. Those are the two groups on the graph (Conf and Unconf).

Again, when they are not confident, the pros use their caudate head (i.e. fall back on intuition), whereas the amateurs do not.

The researchers note that it is highly unlikely that the professionals have seen these exact same positions before. And yet given the timeframe to answer the question they cannot be definitively figuring out the answer (and their own confidence levels, and involvement of the caudate head supports this).

So the 'habit' and 'intuition' that the pros are using the solve the problems (and they are much more likely to get the right answer than the amateurs - almost double) must be relying on some 'higher level' pattern recognition.

The researchers point out that other experiments have pointed to 'goal-directed' pattern recognition. The concept is that the pros have an intuition of what the final checkmate position will most likely resemble, and then they determine which move will put them closest to that final position.

More research is needed on this, but it definitely highlights the fact that we really do not understand how people that are really good at games, and study them day after day, figure out the best move.

From Science 331, 341 (2011); Reprinted with permission from AAAS. Readers may view, browse, and/or download material for temporary copying purposes only, provided these uses are for noncommercial personal purposes. Except as provided by law, this material may not be further reproduced, distributed, transmitted, modified, adapted, performed, displayed, published, or sold in whole or in part, without prior
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Tue Mar 22, 2011 3:02 am
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Ludology Episode 3 - Catch The Leader

Geoffrey Engelstein
United States
Bridgewater
New Jersey
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Its Sunday and on this and every other Sunday we intend on having a fresh new release of Ludology for your listening pleasure.

This week we zoom in to explore a particular feature of many games, "Catch the Leader Mechanics," This is intended to launch a deeper exploration looking into the various ways games are balanced, which will continue over the next few episodes.

This episode may prove to be a bit controversial, as Ryan and I have strong opinions on what 'works' as a CTL mechanic and what doesn't, and games which exhibit both.

Ludology is available at www.ludology.net or on iTunes.

Geoff
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Mon Mar 7, 2011 1:29 am
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NJ Regional FIRST Tournament

Geoffrey Engelstein
United States
Bridgewater
New Jersey
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Versailles 1919 and Superskill Pinball coming soon!
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Last year I did a GameTek segment about the FIRST robotics competition, for high school students.

The teams are assigned a crazy hard game, and have to build a robot in just 7 weeks to play. This year's game is called Logomotion, and here are the rules and a quick overview of the game:



The first round of regional competitions have just been completed, and I am very proud to announce that the team that I help mentor - Team 303, Panther Robotics - was just part of the championship alliance for the New Jersey Regional! Special thanks to teams 1676 and 2016 for picking us to join their alliance.

So we're off to St. Louis for the World Championships at the end of April!

Congrats to all the kids on all the teams who put in such long hours to put together amazing machines.

FIRST is a great competition, and if you're interested in technology, games, kids, or all through, I encourage you to get involved if you can.

Geoff
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Sun Mar 6, 2011 3:07 am
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Episode 2 of Ludology

Geoffrey Engelstein
United States
Bridgewater
New Jersey
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Versailles 1919 and Superskill Pinball coming soon!
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Ludology Host and Dice Tower Contributor
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Microbadge: LudologistMicrobadge: Massachusetts Institute of TechnologyMicrobadge: AtheistMicrobadge: Physics geekMicrobadge: The Dice Tower fan
The second episode of Ludology is now available.

We discuss why people play games, and share personal anecdotes about our own experiences.

A geeklist for your feedback will be posted soon.

We hope you enjoy this episode. It is a little different than what we plan on typically doing, as we do get more personal, but we suspect that many of you will identify with it.

It's amazing to me when I look back how so many of my memories are bound up in games and the people I've met through them. I have a lot more than what I talked about in the episode. My circle of friends in high school was all about gaming. Then when I went to college I met a guy who was into games during 'rush week' (when you pick your dorm/frat/roommates) and we ended up rooming together freshman year and becoming lifelong friends. I could go on and on (but I won't, don't worry!).

Geoff
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Sun Feb 20, 2011 3:34 pm
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