Cognitive Brain: An interesting look on how our brain groups information together to be able to process patterns and familiar situations. But this might also lead to difficulties with introducing new material into a familiar situation.
Author Credit Jonah Lehrer
In the 1940s, the Dutch psychologist Adrian de Groot performed a landmark study of chess experts. Although de Groot was an avid chess amateur – he belonged to several clubs - he grew increasingly frustrated by his inability to compete with more talented players. De Groot wanted to understand his defeats, to identify the mental skills that he was missing. His initial hypothesis was that the chess expert were blessed with a photographic memory, allowing them to remember obscure moves and exploit the minor mistakes of their opponents. De Groot’s first experiment seemed to confirm this theory: He placed twenty different pieces on a chess board, imitating the layout of a possible game. Then, de Groot asked a variety of chess players, from inexperienced amateurs to chess grandmasters, to quickly glance at the board and try to memorize the location of each piece. As the scientists expected, the amateurs drew mostly blanks. The grandmasters, however, easily reproduced the exact layout of the game. The equation seemed simple: memory equals talent.
But then de Groot performed a second experiment that changed everything. Instead of setting the pieces in patterns taken from an actual chess game, he randomly scattered the pawns and bishops and knights on the board. If the best chess players had enhanced memories, then the location shouldn’t matter: a pawn was still a pawn. To de Groot’s surprise, however, the grandmaster edge now disappeared. They could no longer remember where the pieces had been placed.
For de Groot, this failure was a revelation, since it suggested that talent wasn’t about memory – it was about perception. The grandmasters didn’t remember the board better than amateurs. Rather, they saw the board better, instantly translating the thirty-two chess pieces into a set of meaningful patterns.