Last week Angus (via Tom) tipped us off that Channel 5 were going to show a programme about Susan Polgar called My Brilliant Brain. The central premise was that Polgar is a "genius" who possesses a brain that is different to those of ordinary people.
To demonstrate Polgar’s “fundamental chess ability” of “memory” they conducted an experiment where she was asked to reconstruct a chess position after just three seconds to view it. As the camera first panned over the board we saw this block of squares:-
My instant response was, “Hang on a minute that’s …”, but before I’d finished the thought the camera had moved on to another part of the board.
This distinctive formation of the castled king position and rook on e8 and the bishop back on its home square f8 confirmed that Polgar was about to be shown a known theoretical position.
When we got to see the whole board it showed a position taken from the Zaitsev variation of the Ruy Lopez. It is usually reached by
1. e4 e5, 2. Nf3 Nc6, 3. Bb5 a6, 4. Ba4 Nf6, 5. 0-0 Be7, 6. Re1 b5, 7. Bb3 d6, 8. c3 0-0, 9. h3 Bb7, 10. d4 Re8, 11. Nbd2 Bf8, 12. a4 h6, 13. Bc2 exd4, 14. cxd4 Nb4, 15. Bb1 bxa4, 16. Rxa4 a5 17. Ra3 Ra6
So Polgar reconstructed the position quickly but it’s hardly evidence of her genius if I, an average club player, can do exactly the same thing. Indeed, when I mentioned this to Tom the following day all I had to say was “…bxa4 line of the Zaitsev” and he could recall the precise position too – and he didn’t even need to see it.
The point of the experiment was supposed to be how Polgar used ‘chunking’ to keep a chess position in her short term memory. Instead of memorising the positions of individual pieces she remembers familiar sub-formations (chunks) and reconstructs the board that way. This was confirmed when a non-player placed pieces on the board at random and she found it impossible to reconstruct the position.
The fact that a known theoretical position was used doesn’t invalidate the chunking idea, indeed the nature of my own responses seem to prove it. What it does show is the fundamental dishonesty of the programme. In truth it was Polgar’s long-term memory being tested, not her short-term memory.
Later on we saw brain scans taken of Polgar firstly while she was shown photographs of famous chess players and then while she was shown diagrams taken from her own games. During the latter she was asked to think as if she was playing chess considering her next move.
“These are the first scans of world champion’s brain playing chess.”
Well, not really. Looking at chess diagrams then thinking about a move, and actually playing chess are not at all the same thing. [And I note in passing the ‘world champion’ tag is misleading. The average person watching the programme will have assumed that meant Susan Polgar had once won the championship of the entire world and not have known it was just the female half of it.]
The programme showed the results of the scans and claimed that the part of the brain Polgar uses to play chess is exactly the same as is used to recognise faces. Apparently this is known as the fusiform face area.
Now this is an interesting finding but what is actually being said here? The programme claimed Polgar’s chess playing ability is entirely based on her ability to recognise familiar positions and formations and that her brain is actually different to everybody else.
“Astonishingly, Susan’s brain has hijacked the fusiform face area and adapted it to chess.”
What of other Grandmasters? What of me and you? Do we also use the fusiform face area to recognise chess positions or is this unique to Polgar as the programme implies?
What about those scans? The programme doesn’t make clear whether the scans we saw were taken when Polgar was looking at the familiar chess positions or when she was thinking her next move. Would scans at these different times show similar results or would there be differences?
In any event, is it so astonishing that Susan’s brain uses the fusiform face area to recognise chess positions? Even the laziest research on the internet (i.e. looking up 'fusiform' on Wikipedia) suggests this area of the brain is also used to recognise, amongst other things, words and numbers too. Not looking quite so surprising now is it?
These are the key questions in assessing the programme’s fundamental claim that Polgar is a genius and that her brain has become different to yours and mine. Sadly, My Brilliant Brain didn’t ask these questions let alone answer them. Mind you, given the programme blatantly lied about Susan Polgar being the first female grandmaster and employed numerous other half-truths and misrepresentations, I’m not sure I’d have believed it even if it had.