According to an article published in Nature, scientists at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes (NINDS) have been able to identify parts of the brain used by tournament-level chess players in complex problem solving. Studies have shown a networking process that runs throughout the brain, according to Dr. Jordan Grafman and his colleagues. According to Grafman, chess is an “ideal model to help scientists better understand the coordinated work of the brain.”

Chess is an excellent brain game, and can enhance memory as well as other brain areas.

“Imagine yourself as a chess player about to checkmate your opponent,” Grafman said in describing the work of the brain. You are bringing forth all your knowledge of strategies, along with past experience to make the next move. You visualize the pieces on the board and then mentally separate the colors and the figures. You analyze their placement on the board, access each piece’s value to your next move, and remember the rules of the game in order to proceed. Skilled players will recognize specific patterns that will help them gain advantage over their opponent. Then you are able to analyze what would happen if you make x move here, or y move there, and what your opponent may do to counter the attack.

Researchers used a brain imaging technique known as “positron emission tomography” (PET), which allowed Grafman and his coworkers to separate each of the steps the players took and identify which part of the brain was used during each stage. The PET scan then recorded the activity using a radioactive tracer when a part of the brain was activated for a certain task.

The colors of the pieces and the places on the board activated parts of both sides of the brain known to process visual information. Retrieval of the rules activates two parts of the left side of the brain that indexes memories and an area near the left ear associated with memory storage. Making judgment as to how to get checkmate utilizes both sides of the front of the brain that is essential for planning, and the back of the brain that is important for images.

According to Grafman, experiments like the chess study allow scientists to improve our understanding of how humans make judgments. He says the areas in the front of the brain activated in the checkmate judgment stage may be “managerial knowledge units,” which are similar to other types of storage in the brain, but they coordinate a large amount of information in a specific sequence. Grafman says the findings in this study will “ultimately be useful in helping people recovering from brain injuries or diseases that affect problem solving and judgment.”

Chess is an excellent “brain game” because it uses so many different areas of the brain, which will lead to memory improvement and better brain function all around.



Nichelli, P., Grafman, J., Pietrini, P., Alway, D., Carton, J. C., Miletich, R. 1994. Brain activity during chess playing. Nature, vol. 369, no. 6477, p. 191.