Chess has been called the "Drosophila of cognitive science" (in honor of the experimental fly) because it can be measured, broken into components, observed and modified. Much of the research in cognitive science has been around trying to understand the "Expert Mind" and whether its skills are innate or acquired. More importantly, how does the Expert Mind process information so quickly and effectively? Can others learn to do likewise?
Following up on my Passion for Greatness post, I wanted to layout the heart of a recent Scientific American article on this subject. Like the Fortune article, the conclusion was "training trumps talent". Studies have shown no correlation between Chess grandmasters and IQ, visual-spatial ability or memory. There is no correlation between professional horse handicappers and mathematical abilities. Rather most experts seem to organize information into distinct "chunks" which are then efficiently processed. This ability to form fixed patterns is driven by (you guessed it) "effortful" study and practice.
So, what is this "chunking" and how can I do it? My novice analogy would be that this is simply what we all refer to as "pattern recognition". By repeatedly exposing yourself to different situations, you begin to group elements together and view them as a whole versus trying to process the individual pieces. An example of this is when you look at a face you know. You don’t process it as two eyes (1+ inches apart), two eyebrows, a nose with a certain shape, etc. You recall the face as a whole. As a result, you can instantly recognize and acknowledge someone you know.
Alfred Binet, a french psychologist, was one of the first to dive into analyzing chessmasters. He initially assumed they started with a "photographic" image of the board and processed from there. Instead, he and others have found that the chessmasters, knowing how different "strategies" play out, have locked in memory how the pieces should generally be in relation to each other at any point in time. This is how they can play blindfolded. They "chunk" all of the pieces into a snapshot, reinforced through hours of practice, and simply make incremental changes to the snapshot depending on the one piece moving. This then becomes the next snapshot.
Further studies showed that chessmasters don’t process more "possibilities" or scenarios than the other tournament players, but rather consider better ones. They know, given certain snapshots, what the most attractive and effective options are. This is like poker players who begin to ingrain strategies based on different card pairs (Texas Hold ’em) because of past successes. Originally, they go through the grueling process of memorizing odds and probabilities for each card pair (two aces have xx% of winning while a 2 & a 4 have yy%). Eventually, these patterns gets boiled down to simpler, more instinctual responses (bet heavy, bet light, fold, etc given different hands and certain competitor behavior as a "chunk"). Only hours of practice at the table gives this to them. This chunking comes into play with musicians (how melodies play out), computer programmers (set code sequences) and bridge players.
The magic number of "chunks" that are used is between 5 and 9 chunks at any point in time (similar, by the way, to why phone digits are in this range). So, they break the board down into these groups. Interestingly enough, when a random board is set up, grandmasters have just as much trouble as amateurs determining next steps and outcome probabilities. They have no historical patterns to access. Lastly, chessmasters do no better than the average Joe on memory tests. They estimate that a grandmaster has 50-100,000 chunks locked in memory that he can access quickly as needed.
So, what is the take away from all of this. Again, effortful study drives the accelerated acquisition of chunks. Instead of going through the motions, experts take each learning experience and try to assess what are the components, how are the components changing and, most importantly, how do the components relate to each other. This locks in the chunk. They then relate attributes (probability, success, failure, etc) to different chunks. Motivation is the key variable in all of this. People must be motivated. If not motivated, they don’t focus and they don’t learn the patterns. You see this most obviously in students, but also in employees.
Again, all of this applies as much to business as it does to homework or chess. As Buddhism postulates, maintaining constant "Mindfulness" and focus is key to thriving in everyday life. Distractions, multi-tasking, lack of attention all lead to greatly reduced efficiency and growth. Last of all, eat your vegetables…