The Mozart of Chess & Brain Chunking

I may play you like a bishop, but I’ll treat you like a pawn with my Nordic Jedi mind tricks.

This story by Manoel Cortes Mendez titled “Learning from a Prodigy: The Science Behind the Feats of the Greatest Chess Player of All Time” has it all: a suave Scandinavian kid, chess, classical music references, the benefits of sleep, how to piss off Garry Kasparov, and so much more!

Called the Mozart of Chess by some, Magnus Carlsen is now seen by pundits as the greatest chess player to ever play the game. He was a Grandmaster by 13 years old and ranked No. 1 by the World Chess Federation by 19. The first time Carlsen played legendary Grandmaster Garry Kaspoarov, the sulky Russian eked out a draw, but stormed off stage because deep down he knew he had lost.

Anyway, there are many things I took away from this article, one of which is dedicated to Dr. Dinardo, who knows from her last post that there is a fine line between starving your distractions and feeding your focus when you want to learn in the most effective way possible. As Mr. Mendez, the self-described “software engineer, chess aficionado, and amateur writer,” puts it:

Indeed, research has shown that effective learning requires the brain to alternate between two complementary modes of operation: the focused mode and the diffuse mode.”

Here’s how he breaks it down:

“The focused mode involves concentrating intently on the task at hand. This mode is ideal for absorbing new information and kick-starting the chunking process. It is the mode students engage, or at least should engage, when they study a new subject.

The diffuse mode, on the contrary, involves relaxing the mind. We switch to this mode when we mentally walk away from any specific focus and instead let our thoughts wander. Sleeping or going for a stroll are prime examples of diffuse-thinking activities. It may seem counterintuitive to imagine that this type of mental state could contribute to the learning process, but as it turns out, it is an essential ingredient.”

I can hear the reader now saying, somewhat vociferously, That’s hunky-dory, man, but what about the friggin’ brain chunking? I wanna be chunking with the best of ’em!

“In neuroscience, the process that involves cementing little by little actionable bits of information into memory is called chunking. And that’s precisely what Carlsen does: he chunks chess moves. And as these chunks start building on one another, they transform into tactics; tactics that in turn become strategies; and strategies that ultimately almost always culminate in a checkmate.

Likewise, when we study a new subject, our brain tries to digest the information by converting it into mental chunks. But these chunks fade over time. In order to maintain them, we must revisit the material regularly. As the chunks are strengthened, we may space out our revision sessions further apart. With time and practice, chunks will find a permanent place in our long-term memory.”

Ultimately, the simple lesson from this piece comes down to the following for me:

“Carlsen encourages players to vary the conditions of the game. Play competitively and play for fun. Play online and play face-to-face. Play against people of different origins and with different playstyles. Simply put, seek diversity in chess.”

I’d like to say this is an excellent prescription for writing well (many of the finest authors write in a variety of genres), but the reality is that this applies to life, too. After all, variety, as they say, is the spicy spice of life.



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4 responses to “The Mozart of Chess & Brain Chunking

  1. Great post Richard! Thanks for the shout out. Good references in your posts. I especially liked the pinball machine reference in the one article.

    The focused-diffuse dichotomy can also be explained by L-R brain lateralization. With the left brain functioning in focus mode & right brain functioning in diffuse mode.

    This also explains why we can only be in one mode at a time. I wrote about this topic here:

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