Thursday, March 24, 2011

Odd skill transference

I often wonder how the brain and behavior is affected by frequent chess play at an early age. In Richie's case, I would say most of the impact has been behavioral. His school teachers, for instance, often tell me that he is very methodical/careful in his work and demonstrates a lot of patience for his age. That shouldn't really come as any surprise when you consider what it takes to play a competitive 3 hour chess game.

Yesterday, while cleaning house, I dug up some flash cards I made for Alyssa and Richie to help them understand numbers as quantities. They consist of approximately 50 cards with 1 to 50 red dot stickers arranged in random patterns. When they were around 3 years old, I would teach them the numbers by asking them to count the number of dots and as they got a little older I taught them to group into sets of 5.

Well it had been several years since I had seen these cards so I decided to trot them out and asked Richie and Alyssa to identify the quantities using the grouping tactic.

Strangely, Alyssa is still quite facile at grouping by fives and could quite easily and quickly identify any number up to 20 or so within a second or two.

But what I found quite fascinating was that Richie would stare at the card for two or three seconds and then close his eyes (!) and count with his eyes closed. I couldn't imagine why he'd do that so I asked him what he was doing and he said he was memorizing the image and counting the dots one by one... I was skeptical so I tested him several times and even removed the card from sight to make sure he wasn't peeking, but he was really doing it that way. His accuracy dropped above 18 or so, but my interest was piqued nonetheless. I can only speculate that hours of visualization at the board has trained this particular visualization skill. I asked him whether he was actually seeing the image or if he was was remembering them in groups or something and he claimed that he was just seeing it as if his eyes were open. That is interesting in that it contrasts with how strong chess players are able to play blindfolded. Typically they are relying on relationships of the pieces on the board rather than holding a photographic image in their minds.

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