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How To Participate In Harvard Study Of Cognitive Skills and Chess Performance
Researchers at Harvard University want to show how chess performance relates to cognitive abilities. Image. Harvard University.

How To Participate In Harvard Study Of Cognitive Skills and Chess Performance

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Do you consider studying and playing chess to be a beneficial way to improve your thinking skills? A research team at Harvard University is charged with exploring how chess performance relates to cognitive abilities. You may be able to participate in the study if you meet the prerequisites. (If you’re younger than 50, you aren’t eligible.)

The more you play chess, the more you probably recognize the importance of critical thinking to success in playing our favorite game. How much so may be revealed in this new study. “Chess is the gymnasium of the mind,” said noted French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, considered by some as the second greatest French mind behind Rene Descartes. 

Chess is the gymnasium of the mind.
—Blaise Pascal, French mathematician and philosopher

Chess Cognition Project

Harvard University has initiated the Chess Cognition Project to gather information on the cognitive abilities of chess players. The goal is to demonstrate how chess performance relates to general cognitive ability and if chess performance can be used to measure the cognitive effects of aging and environmental exposures. If the study can establish that chess performance is a valid measure of cognitive ability, then existing chess performance datasets can be analyzed for risk factors in cognitive aging and decline.

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Global mental health researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health are examining the connection between chess performance and cognitive skills. Photo: Harvard University.

Study Participants

Study participants have to be at least 50 years old and be fluent in English. They also have to be currently living in the United States, be a member of the U.S. Chess Federation, and have played at least one rated game since January 1, 2019. In addition, they cannot have been diagnosed with any cognitive impairment.

Participants initially complete an online survey about their demographic background and health. Then they are interviewed in an online videoconference when they also take a battery of tests to measure their cognitive ability in different dimensions. A study team member is available during the interview to assist as necessary. The cognitive testing component lasts about 20-25 minutes. The entire interview session takes about an hour to complete. All personal information is later removed from the study, and information collected during the interview is private and not released to anyone.

Brain research
Would you let Harvard researchers explore your cognitive skills? (I did.) Illustration: Barbara Dekeyser, Harvard Magazine.

Study participants are also requested to upload their game history to an online portal. Library, the new Chess.com feature that became operational earlier this year, makes this task relatively simple. However, if any participant doesn’t want to submit games (and records that show moves), they may still participate in the cognitive testing. To help with their analysis, the study team will also be able to access results from a participant’s tournament history maintained by U.S. Chess.

Interview and Cognitive Tests

I just joined the project and was the fourth person to be interviewed and tested. (The team hopes to interview 200.) After completing the demographic survey (questions about age, work history, education, native language, and ethnicity), I took the battery of cognitive tests online. Surprising to me was that none of the tests was related to the game of chess. (Thus the chess-relevant component will be provided by game history and tournament results.)

Brain and chess pieces
What is the connection between chess performance and cognitive skills? Illustration: Pixabay.

The tests ranged from very simple to a few that were challenging. For example, a researcher read me a list of words, and I was asked to recall as many as possible. Next I had to repeat a series of numbers—first in order that I heard them and then in reverse order. I also listened to a short story and was asked to repeat as many details about it that I could. A “motor sequencing” test was used to demonstrate if I could repeat a series of hand gestures.

For my game history, I created a special collection in Library on Chess.com and transferred my games rated by U.S. Chess in Portable Game Notation (pgn format) to the Harvard researchers. I also volunteered to participate in any future studies. (Researchers hope to conduct a similar, more in-depth study with five times as many participants after this one.)

Interview
The interview lasts less than an hour and is conducted via a videoconference call; only the audio portion is recorded. Photo: Ray Linville.

Public Health Education at Harvard

The study is being conducted by the Center for Population and Development Studies at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The school’s legacy is impressive. It began as the first professional public health training program in America. The principal researchers are Dr. David Canning (who began playing games rated by U.S. Chess in 2011) and Dr. Meagan Farrell at Harvard’s Program on the Global Demography of Aging.

In 2019, Harvard Medical School reported that chess and other “brain games” can “play an important role in maintaining overall brain health.” The Chess Cognition Project may be useful for demonstrating how chess performance relates to cognitive abilities. The connection between chess and the mind has intrigued players for generations. Richard Reti was famously noted for saying, “For in the idea of chess and the development of the chess mind, we have a picture of the intellectual struggle of mankind.”

For in the idea of chess and the development of the chess mind, we have a picture of the intellectual struggle of mankind.
—Richard Reti 

If you meet the study prerequisites and want to participate, you can enroll by clicking here. To obtain information about the project, contact the study team by email or visit their website. Results of the project, which will not be available for about a year, will be used for only academic research. A summary of its results will be published on the website of Harvard’s Program on the Global Demography of Aging

Although there are no direct benefits for participating in the study, the information provided will be used to understand factors that affect cognitive aging processes. Participants will receive an email message about the study results when they have been published.


Note: If you plan to participate in the study or have completed the interview, please leave a comment. Please also provide information about the study to your friends who are eligible to participate. When I completed my interview, the study team told me that they still want to enroll more participants.