Is chess good for your brain?

The efficiency of the brain has increased over the past 125 years

By Friederike Ostermeyer | October 26, 2020, 7:24 p.m.

On the basis of around 24,000 chess games that took place between 1890 and 2014, researchers investigated the question of what these data reveal about the human brain and its development. In the process, they made interesting discoveries: On the one hand, cognitive performance has improved significantly over the past few decades, and on the other hand, the brain apparently ages more slowly than other organs.

Our brain has to process significantly more every day than it was 100 years ago. In addition to constant acoustic and visual irrigation, normal everyday life has to be coped with between deadline pressure and job stress. Our great-grandparents would probably be completely overwhelmed with this today, while in return we would probably hardly be able to cope with the physical exertion from back then. Since in the vast majority of cases we can keep up with today's challenges, the assumption is that the brain has adapted accordingly. In order to be able to measure this, the scientists Anthony Strittmatter (University of St. Gallen), Uwe Sunde (LMU Munich) and Dainis Zegners (Rotterdam School of Management) came up with the idea of ​​evaluating a chess database that had existed since 1890.

What chess reveals about our cognitive development

Compared to conventional cognitive tests, which only represent a snapshot and are also quite abstract, said database has a decisive advantage: far more can be derived from the enormous amount of data from over 125 years of tournament chess. More precisely, it is about 24,000 games with more than 1.6 million move-by-move observations - divided between 4295 players and their 4274 opponents. This results in statements about the cognitive development of each individual player as well as about the cognitive development over the entire 125 years. According to the researchers, the results can also be transferred to non-chess players, since similar neuronal processes take place in everyday life and similar brain regions are required as in a successful game of chess. "The quality of a certain move thus reflects an ideal measure for the performance of a demanding cognitive task that is becoming more and more important in today's job market," the authors of the study say.

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Brain performance has apparently improved over the past 125 years

The younger the age group, the better the performance of individual chess players. “The difference in cognitive performance between a person born in 1870 and a person born in 1970 is roughly eight percentage points.” In plain language: The younger generations made more so-called optimal moves than their “chess ancestors”. In the course of the 1990s - that is, at the time when home computers found their way into our lives - a clear leap was once again noticeable. The researchers concluded: “The availability of new technologies has apparently improved player performance. It also gave them more exercise opportunities. ”In summary, people of the 21st century have reached a higher cognitive level. So we have become more efficient in our heads. A fact that we obviously owe to an increasingly technological environment.

At 35, our brains are at their peak when it comes to performance

The scientists also looked at the cognitive performance curve of each player. In doing so, they found that most players' skills increased rapidly by the age of 20, after which their improvements slowed. By the age of 35, almost all of them had reached their personal climax. Most players were able to maintain this peak performance for about ten years, until it gradually began to decline at 45. What is particularly interesting about this: While muscles, strength and bones start to break down from the age of 30, there is still something to be found in the head. The chess study also reveals that the brain ages much more slowly than other organs.

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