24 January 2011

Automatic Expertise Grows with Time and Training


The human brain learns a lot, over time. Experience shapes the brain, determining how it will work, and which parts of the brain will be active in different circumstances. With training, many parts of the brain learn to function more quickly and efficiently to perform particular tasks in a more expert manner. But this training must be intense enough, and take place early enough in life -- before the developmental windows close -- for the skills to become automatic at expert levels.

Recent Japanese brain research has determined that expert players in the Japanese chess game "Shogi" use different parts of their brain (the caudate nucleus among others) to play, than do amateurs of the game. The caudate nucleus is the curved purple structure in the image above.
Neuroscientists at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute in Wako, Japan, studied a group of professional and amateur shogi players. Shogi is the Japanese version of chess. With the use of real-time brain scans, the researchers discovered that the pros activated different parts of their brains than the amateurs did while studying game patterns and contemplating their next moves.

The findings were published in the Jan. 21 issue of Science.

Senior study author Keiji Tanaka, deputy director of the institute and head of the Cognitive Brain Mapping Laboratory, said the experts' unique brain circuitry enabled them to have "superior intuitive problem-solving capabilities."

Professional shogi players, who have practiced three or four hours a day for several years, "repeatedly note that the best next move comes to their mind 'intuitively,'" the authors wrote. "Being 'intuitive' indicates that the idea for a move is generated quickly and automatically without conscious search, and the process is mostly implicit."

... brain difference occurred when the players were forced to quickly pick their next best move. The professionals' brain scans revealed activity in a portion of the basal ganglion known as the caudate nucleus, while the amateurs' scans did not.

The researchers suggest that a unique circuit between these two regions of the brain is what enables professional players to expertly recognize board game patterns and quickly choose their optimal next move.

"There was no volume difference of the caudate nucleus between professional and amateur players," said Tanaka. This suggests that "the caudate nucleus is used for other purposes in ordinary people [but] the experts have developed a unique way to use the system." _BW_via_ImpactLab
The caudate nucleus has been implicated in the development of automaticity of several types -- which places the caudate in a central, pivotal position for humans living in modern societies.

First, the caudate appears to be involved in the acquired automaticity of motor skills. This is not such a big surprise to brain researchers. But the caudate also seems to be involved in the automaticity of emotional processing, the automaticity of perceptual categorisation (PDF), automaticity of rule-based categorisation, and in switching between two languages in bilingual individuals. There are almost certainly more caudate functions to come.

Sure, there is overlap between the different caudate functions, but the brain -- and its many modular parts -- is nothing if not multi-functional. A Swiss Army knife of cognitive and emotional tools that modifies itself over a person's lifetime, adapting to the individual's experience.

That is why it is so important to the individual that the brain's many potential functions be developed before their developmental windows close. And why it is so important to society that the brains of its members are well developed and long-lived.

We cannot afford to waste all of that hard-earned knowledge, experience, and savvy by dying too young. 500 year lifespans should be seen as a minimum timespan for skills acquisition and for passing these skills along to future generations.

Taken from an article on Al Fin Longevity

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