Jonah Lehrer on Carlsen and chess intuition

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CarlsenJonah Lehrer, author of Proust Was A Neuroscientist and the recent How We Decide, has an interesting blog post on the recent TIME profile of Magnus Carlsen (about which we also reported). According to Lehrer, the use of computers actually enhances chess intuition.

In his post at The Frontal Cortex, Lehrer argues that (chess) intuition is not something 'semi-mystical', but consists of 'experience embedded in the unconscious', a point several others (such as Malcolm Gladwell in his best-selling book Blink) have made as well. Lehrer observes:
One of the fascinating elements of Carlsen's talent is that he's learned the game by playing computer chess, matching his wits against advanced algorithms. The end result is a prodigy who's amassed an unprecedented amount of deliberate practice at an early age (...).

At first glance, there is something surprising about a teenager weaned on chess software extolling the wonders of intuition. It's as if we expect Carlsen to act like his software, to be as explicit in his strategic decisions as Deep Blue, the IBM supercomputer. But that misses the real purpose of practice and the real genius of the human brain. (...)

When experts evaluate a situation, they don't systematically compare all the available options or consciously analyze the relevant information. Carlsen, for instance, doesn't compute the probabilities of winning if he moves his rook to the left rather than the right. Instead, experts naturally depend on the emotions generated by their experience. Their prediction errors - all those mistakes they made in the past - have been translated into useful knowledge, which allows them to tap into a set of accurate feelings they can't begin to explain.
Lehrer concludes that this should make us less surprised about the fact that 'a chess prodigy raised on chess computer programs would be even more intuitive than traditional grandmasters.' Of course, just how intuitive traditional grandmasters were is still pretty unclear. For instance, in the book Secrets of Chess Intuition (2002) the authors Mikhalchisin and Beliavsky devoted much time to Mikhail Tal, possibly the most intuitive player in chess history, who definitely didn't own a computer. Was Tal really less intuitive than Carlsen? One commenter reacted to Lehrer's last statement with reserved skepticism:
That is quite a leap. The truth is we have zero idea why this young genius is more intuitive, nor do we even have any way of knowing if he is "more intuitive" since it's such a subjective and abstract thing to measure.
This sounds like a reasonable argument, though I think Lehrer may be onto something all the same. Another prodigy playing in Corus – Wesley So – has often said that he, too, has mainly relied on computers when learning chess, and I'm sure more examples can be found. Indeed, when you look at how many young kids are true experts at handling computers when it comes to playing games, typing, or even truly complex stuff such as object-oriented programming, it sounds plausible that computers can enhance (chess) intuition in many ways.

Still, mere exposure to more positions is not the same as being able to use them in a sensible way. The idea that working with computers can influence intuition is similar to the idea that the internet may be changing the way we think.  This very question was also the subject of this year's Edge Annual Question, on which neuroscientist William Calvin answered:
Assembling a new combination ("associations") may be relatively easy. The problem is whether the parts hang together, whether they cohere. We get a nightly reminder of an incoherent thought process from our dreams, which are full of people, places, and occasions that do not hang together very well. Awake, an incoherent collection is what we often start with, with the mind's back office shaping it up into the coherent version that we finally become aware of — and occasionally speak aloud. Without such intellectual constructs, there is, William James said a century ago, only "a bloomin' buzzin' confusion."
It seems to me this is the real secret of these prodigies: how can they assemble all the information that enters their head into something as coherent as winning a chess game against a world class opponent? Until we have an answer to this question, it's perhaps not so strange people still call it a mystery.
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