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Neuroscientific evidence support that chess improves academic performance in school

Authors:
  • Autonomous University of the State of Hidalgo, Mexico

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In this work, we report the cognitive benefits of playing chess for school-aged children. The most benefitted areas appear to be math and reading. To validate these results, a diversity of scientific studies are described, in which brain activation is demonstrated through magnetic resonance imaging when novice, intermediate, and advance chess players play the game. Given this evidence, it is suggested that chess be used as a tool to improve academic performance in boys and girls. In addition, it is concluded that studying the use of chess could lead to new lines of research that could validate the neural mechanisms that occur when boys and girls play chess.
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194
Neuroscientific evidence support that chess improves
academic performance in school
Ricardo Ortiz-Pulido1*, Raúl Ortiz-Pulido2, Luis I. García-Hernández3, César A. Pérez-Estudillo3 and
MaríaL. Ramírez-Ortega4
1Dirección General Federalizada de Educación Física, Subsecretaría de Educación de Veracruz, Veracruz; 2Laboratorio de Ecología de Poblaciones,
Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas, Universidad Autónoma del Estado de Hidalgo, Hidalgo; 3Centro de Investigaciones Cerebrales, Universidad
Veracruzana; 4Jardín de Niños “Obrero Campesino”. Xalapa, Veracruz, México
Revista Mexicana de Neurociencia
REVIEW ARTICLE
Abstract
In this work, we report the cognitive benefits of playing chess for school-aged children. The most benefitted areas appear to
be math and reading. To validate these results, a diversity of scientific studies are described, in which brain activation is
demonstrated through magnetic resonance imaging when novice, intermediate, and advance chess players play the game.
Given this evidence, it is suggested that chess be used as a tool to improve academic performance in boys and girls. In
addition, it is concluded that studying the use of chess could lead to new lines of research that could validate the neural
mechanisms that occur when boys and girls play chess.
Key words: Chess. School. Boys. Girls. Academic performance.
Evidencia neurocientífica apoya que el ajedrez mejora el rendimiento académico
en la escuela
Resumen
En este trabajo se reportan los beneficios cognitivos que produce la práctica del ajedrez en niños en edad escolar. Las
áreas más beneficiadas parecen ser las matemáticas y la lectura. Para validar lo anterior se describen diversos trabajos
científicos que muestran la activación cerebral a través de imágenes de resonancia magnética cuando los jugadores de
ajedrez novatos, intermedios o avanzados practican este juego. Con base en ello se sugiere usar el ajedrez como una he-
rramienta que permita la mejora del rendimiento escolar en niños y niñas. Se concluye además que a partir de la utilización
de este juego se pueden generar líneas de investigación que busquen validar mecanismos neurales que ocurren cuando
niños y niñas juegan ajedrez.
Palabras clave: Ajedrez. Escuela. Niños. Niñas. Rendimiento escolar.
Correspondence:
*Ricardo Ortiz Pulido
Calletano Rodríguez Beltrán, s/n
Col. Centro
Xalapa, Veracruz, México
E-mail:pulidoortizricardo@gmail.com
Available online: 09-08-2019
Rev Mex Neuroci. 2019;20(4):194-199
www.revmexneurociencia.com
Date of reception: 25-09-2018
Date of acceptance: 06-06-2019
DOI: 10.24875/RMN.M19000060
1665-5044/© 2019. Academia Mexicana de Neurología A.C. Published by Permanyer México. This is an Open Access article under the terms of the CC BYNC-ND
license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).
No part of this publication may be reproduced or photocopying without the prior written permission of the publisher. © Permanyer 2019
195
R. Ortiz-Pulido, et al.: Neuroscientific evidence
Introduction
Chess is a game that allows the transfer of cognitive
abilities1. This is due to the fact that it involves high-lev-
el cognitive aspects, requires sophisticated prob-
lem-solving abilities2-5, has a positive impact on aca-
demic achievements of those who play it6 and positive
effects on mental development. This may be because,
during the game of chess, cognitive abilities7 such as
creativity, anticipation, perception, and memory5 are
used. Chess, in addition, offers an opportunity to study
individual differences in cognitive processes3.
Regardless of grade level, chess can be used as a
learning tool in boys and girls, since this game allows
them to self-regulate their learning and reach specic
objectives8. In addition, through divers chess problems,
the level of knowledge of boys and girls in similar ac-
tivities can be determined9. This is because chess has
a complex rule system, and knowledge depends on
each student’s individual level5. Similarly, regardless of
the level of the game performance of each individual,
neuroimaging studies have shown brain activation
during game play10.
The objective of this work is to present scientically
validated information demonstrating that chess is a
useful tool for improving boys’ and girls’ academic per-
formance in school. To do so, diversity of studies is
described in which chess players are evaluated using
functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). After
analyzing these studies, we suggest that chess can be
used as a tool to improve learning in school-aged boys
and girls.
Chess in schools
Playing chess, both in and outside of school, has a
large potential for developing academic knowledge in
children11,12 . In Mexico, the level of academic perfor-
mance by each child can be quantied, since their
performance is evaluated and they receive a grade
score for their performance in mathematics and Span-
ish. However, chess playing is not graded. Even so, a
variety of benets, apparently indicating a positive im-
pact of playing chess on mathematics and reading
scores have been reported.
In recent studies, it has been reported that teaching
chess yields benets in school7,9 ,11,13 ,14 . These benets
have been detected, particularly in children’s math12,15- 21
(Table1) and reading comprehension scores22-25
(Table2), though the effect is not the same between
the two subjects. According to a recent meta-analysis
evaluating which of the two subject areas (math or
reading) is most benetted, the area most positively
impacted was math26. This may be because the game
cultivates a high level of non-specic skills (for exam-
ple, persistence, self-control, objectivity, memory, and
problem-solving) which are relevant to academic per-
formance overall27.
Playing and training for chess have been considered
an important learning tool in education12, leading to
some institutions to incorporate it into their school cur-
ricula1 or as an afterschool extracurricular activity. Not-
withstanding, increased dissemination of the benets
of this game among education officials at the federal,
state, and municipal levels is needed so that they will
support initiatives in favor of educational spaces in the
schools, and as such, bring the benets of chess to
schools.
Chess allows boys and girls to obtain benets in
diverse cognitive areas4 ,11,16 , 2 2, 2 8; it has been shown
that subjects that play chess improves their spatial
reasoning, long-term planning, decision-making,
memory11, cognitive development, academic perfor-
mance4,5, and strategic, creative, and critical thinking5.
At the same time, chess can be used to evaluate
cognitive processes, for example, by asking children
to place the game pieces on the board in random or-
der or standard positions29. However, further investi-
gation is needed to describe the effects of this science
game.
In this work, we describe some of the research
reporting a positive effect of chess on academic per-
formance, spatial concepts, executive functions, and
basic cognitive, and social skills.
Studies evaluating the effects of chess
The results presented here showed a positive effect
on the educational process of boys and girls who re-
ceived training in chess.
In a study in Seoul, South Korea, it was found that
presenting students with a heuristic chess problem
were helpful for evaluating students’ intellectual levels
and using that knowledge, choose adequate method-
ologies for improving each student’s level of academic
performance1. The study was carried out among 38
students aged 8-12, divided into two catego-
ries:(1) those with high intellectual level and (2) those
at risk of failing the school year, from three different
primary schools1.
Another study showed that a group that trained
in chess improved basic skills (i.e., attention and
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196
Rev Mex Neuroci. 2019;20
memory), complex cognitive skills (e.g.,association,
analysis, synthesis, planning, and foresight), and
social-personal skills, compared to two control
groups – one that did not participate in chess or any
sport and another that played soccer and
basketball14.
In another study, the effect of training in chess
in 6-year-old children showed an increase in spatial
concept comprehension compared to a group of chil-
dren that did not play chess7; and nally, a study
showed that children who trained in chess had higher
results on evaluations of executive function than those
that did not13.
These results have caught the attention of neurosci-
entists, who have begun to describe brain activation
when children participate in the game of chess.
Table1. Some of the research in which chess has been found to impact mathematics performance in school
Author(s) Country NStudy objective Tests Results
Fernández-Amigo
etal.15
Spain N=141 experimental
group(79 boys, 62
girls)
Analyze, qualitatively and
quantitatively, the utility of
instructional materials
using chess for teaching
mathematics during the
second grade of primary
school
EFAI(“Evaluación
factorial de las
aptitudes intelectuales”,
in English, Factorial
Evaluation of
Intellectual Aptitudes)29
Numerical score,
reasoning score,
ethnographic interview,
surveys
Satisfaction was
achieved in the
utility of the chess
- based learning
materials for
teaching
mathematics
Achig17 Ecuador N=35 experimental
group(20 boys,
15girls)
Test the impact of chess
on logical-mathematical
reasoning in sixth-grade
primary school students
Theoretical chess test
before and after,
Mathematics class
score
The average math
class score
increased
Guerrero etal.18 Mexico N=32 The number
of boys versus girls
is not given
Describe the effect of
chess on basic
mathematical operations
in fifth-grade primary
school students
Pre-test and post-test
on fractions and
operations based on
ENLACE 2011 and 2012
test questions, surveys
and interviews
Better
concentration,
and memory and
higher math class
score
Gumede and
Rosholm19
Denmark N=264 The number
of boys versus girls
is not given
Characterize the impact of
chess in the subject of
mathematics in first-and
third-grade primary school
students
Pre-intervention tests,
characteristics of the
child and the child’s
mother and father
Positive effects in
both immigrant
and non-immigrant
Danish children
Sala etal.20 Italy N=309 experimental
group(169 boys, 140
girls).
N=251 control
group(116 boys, 135
girls).
Investigate the potential
of online chess lessons on
problem-solving abilities
in second, fourth, and
fifth-grade primary school
students
Programme for
International Student
Assessment and chess
survey following
Trinchero28 Item 12
Highly positive
correlation
between math
score and chess
in the
experimental
group
Sala etal.21 Italy N=309 experimental
group
(169 boys, 140 girls)
N=251 control
group(116 boys, 135
girls)
Experimental study of
chess in fourth grade
primary school students
using a placebo group
Six tests evaluating
mathematics abilities,
IEA–TIMSS31
psychometric test
The chess group
was more
effective in math
skills than the GO
group, but not in
school activities
Rosholm etal.12 Denmark N=323 experimental
group. N=159
control group
Analyze the effect of
replacing one
mathematics lesson per
week with one based on
chess instruction in first
and third grade primary
school students
Mathematics
test(including
calculations, geometry,
pattern recognition, and
basic problem solving)
Improvement in
the composition of
mathematical
sequences in the
experimental
group
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197
R. Ortiz-Pulido, et al.: Neuroscientific evidence
Brain activation while playing chess
fMRI is one of the most important scientic advances
since it allows the development of the cognitive scienc-
es in ways never seen before. This is because fMRI
allows a detailed study of brain cartography, and there-
fore, characterization of brain functions. fMRI is a tech-
nique that can measure hemodynamic changes after
neuronal activity32. fMRI detects brain activity by direct-
ly measuring tissue perfusion, changes in blood vol-
ume, and changes in oxygen concentration33.
We see four main studies that can be used to describe
how fMRI is used to investigate cognitive processes in
chess players. These studies have demonstrated dif-
ferential activation of the brain2,34-36 during games of
novices and experts37.
One of these studies was carried out using novice
chess players. fMRI results showed brain region asso-
ciations that are activated during the analysis of game
positions. These regions are the premotor areas, frontal
lobes, parietal cortices, occipital lobe, and the left
hemisphere of the cerebellum2.
Another study showed that among expert chess play-
ers, there is no difference in the areas of brain activity;
however, when their patterns of brain activity were com-
pared to those of novice players, there were differenc-
es, since the novices produced activation among the
posterior areas of both hemispheres, which did not
occur among the expert players34.
The third scientic study was carried out using both
novice and expert chess players. This study aimed to
determine whether the subjects recognize general
and specic patterns in chess. The experiment con-
sisted of putting the game pieces on the board at
random and instructing the subjects to recognize and
analyze the patterns of the pieces using their eye
movements. The results showed that while novice
players examine irrelevant aspects, the expert chess
players focused immediately on relevant aspects of
the task. To corroborate this difference, the experi-
ment was done using fMRI, which allowed the de-
scription of differences in patterns of general and
specic recognition. In the novice players, there was
activation in the temporal-occipital area, while in ex-
perts, who were able to recognize specic objects
Table2. List of research papers investigating the impact of chess on reading comprehension in school
Author(s) Country Number of
participants
Study objective Tests Results
Margulies etal.22 United
States of
America
N=1118 Groups
of participants
N=22
Escribe the effect on
reading before and
after chess instruction
in primary school
Degree of reading
power test(DRP)
The group of chess students
improved more than the
average student
Liptrap etal.23 United
States of
America
N=571 total
Chess group
N=67 Group
that did not play
chess N=504
Determine the
degree of
participation by
students in a chess
club
Texas Assessment of
Academic
Skills(TAAS). Texas
Learning Index(TLI)
The chess group improved
more in math skills than in
reading
Duccette24 United
States of
America
Experimental
group N=151
Analyze the effect of
a chess program on
behavior, math, and
reading
Philadelphia’s
behavior grade and
attendance,
Pennsylvania System
of school
Achievement(PSSA)
score in Reading and
mathematics
After 1year, the group that
played chess improved in
math and reading, and these
values were correlated, while
in the control group none of
these patterns were present
Dapica-Tejada25 Spain N=60 Total
Chess group
N=30(21 boys,
9 girls)
Control Group
N=30(20 boys,
10 girls)
Test whether there
are significant
differences in reading
comprehension and
saccadic
movements(SM*) in
boys and girls that
play chess
Chess participation
survey, PROLEC-SE
battery of tests of
reading processes and
the King Devick SM
test
The chess group improved on
the different tests by which
they were evaluated, which
did not occur in the no-chess
group. In addition, there was
a correlation between SM
and reading comprehension
and between chess and SM
*SM are produced in the eyes when we read, look, or search for information, refers to movement speeds of 500º/S. During these MS, the eyes can remain still for intervals
of around 200-300 ms.
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198
Rev Mex Neuroci. 2019;20
during the test, there was bilateral activation in the
middle part of the collateral sulci. This experiment
showed evidence suggesting that subjects are able
to identify general and specic patterns in chess; in
addition, it describes the cognitive process they used.
As such, this work could help describe essential per-
ceptive mechanisms in humans35.
The last study we will comment on was carried out
with novice players who had been training for only a
short time and expert players with years of intensive
training. fMRI was used to characterize their neuronal
activity. The results suggest that specic training acti-
vated or inhibited specic brain structures, such as the
bilateral caudate nucleus. At the same time, the volume
of brain activity in that area was signicantly smaller in
experts than in novices36.
Despite the costliness of fMRI testing, the effects of
playing chess have been investigated for many years38.
As a consequence, the recent discoveries in neurosci-
ences using neuroimaging techniques could allow the
description of the underlying neural mechanisms of
chess playing2,34-36, establish a correlation in the theory
of the mind39 and identify common high level areas in
cognitive processes, which could result in new theories
of cognitive process2 or exploration of higher functions
of the human brain40. In any case, we believe that there
is a link between playing chess, increased academic
performance in school, and the fMRI results.
Finally, we believe that the studies described above
could lay the neuroscientic foundation for new scien-
tic research on chess and other board games.
Brain activation in games other than
chess
It is possible that the academic improvement in boys
and girls could be achieved not only through playing
chess but also through other similar games. It is, there-
fore, important to consider what is known about the
effects of other games on activation of different brain
areas.
For example, one study analyzed the brain activity
of 28 professional and amateur players of the board
game Shogi. The average age of the subjects was
30.6years. In the professional players, there was ac-
tivation in specic brain areas, particularly in the pre-
cuneus of the parietal lobule during the perception of
patterns on the board, and in the caudate nucleus of
the basal ganglia when the players were carrying out
their “best move.” Considering these results, the re-
searchers suggest that the precuneus-caudate circuit
is involved in the automatic patterns of the process of
pattern perception on the board and the perception of
the next move37.
Another study was carried out among university stu-
dents (not professionals) with the aim of describing
which brain areas are activated when subjects partici-
pate in the game GO. The fMRI results showed that the
activated areas were the cortical, prefrontal, parietal,
occipital posterior temporal, primary somatosensory
system, and motor areas. It is thought that this type of
activation may be due to the fact that the game empha-
sizes an overall strategy rather than a specic strategy,
as occurs in chess41.
Although analyzing the rules and other characteris-
tics of Shogi, Go, and chess, reveal clear differences
among them, it is important to emphasize that the
studies described used fMRI and have helped to de-
scribe which brain areas are most active while these
games are being played. In the near future, it is possi-
ble that a cognitive model of learning could be de-
scribed for games other than chess from the perspec-
tive of neuroscience or other cognitive models.
Conclusions
In this review, we have described the benets and
favorable academic effects in boys and girls in the
school setting, as well as the neuronal activation that
occurs when playing chess. As such, we consider that
playing this game could be a viable strategy for improv-
ing expected learning and relevant knowledge in boys
and girls42, as long as the educator that works with
them keeps them motivated in a fun, collaborative
environment14.
In several countries, this strategy has been used to
improve academic performance, for example, in Mex-
ico, where ENLACE academic evaluations43 during
primary school and Programme for International Stu-
dent Assessment evaluations in the secondary school
show that girls and boys are below the worldwide
average44. In addition, we believe that using the foun-
dations described here, new lines of research could
be generated, considering the game of chess as a
potential catalyst for academic improvement in boys
and girls.
Conflicts of interest
There are no conicts of interest for the authors of
this work.
No part of this publication may be reproduced or photocopying without the prior written permission of the publisher. © Permanyer 2019
199
R. Ortiz-Pulido, et al.: Neuroscientific evidence
Funding
The authors declare that there were no funding
sources for the elaboration of this manuscript.
Acknowledgments
We thank the Subsecretary of Education of Veracruz,
especially Lic. Javier Ramírez Cruz, Lic. Miguel Rober-
to Rodríguez Flores and Mtro. Maestro Bruno Renato
Flores Suarez, for lending facilities for writing this pa-
per. Thanks to Mtro. Darío Arcos Monl, Mtro. José
Gary Zilly, L.E.F. Mauricio Ortiz Téllez y L.E.F. Carlos
Martínez Mendieta for diverse academic discussions at
the Centro de investigación de la Dirección Federaliza-
da de Educación Física de Veracruz, which focused
this work.
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