Those Computers In Your Head

You think this post is going to be about coding, but it’s really about chess and realizing that you can build wonderful special-purpose machines in your head over time.

When I was first learning to code, my main frustration was that the code didn’t compile. I would type out an example from the textbook exactly (“exactly”), and yet there still be cryptic errors. Mystified I would carefully compare each character to the source. Sometimes I found the mistake, and at least once I never did and abandoned that project entirely. I frequently observe beginners with the same problem.

After ten years or so of this, I can look at code snippets in my preferred programming language and pick out any syntax errors immediately. In fact, these days, I can run many programs in my head! This sounds obvious and ordinary to professional engineers, but it’s still quite wonderful. My brain can keep track of all the state in a short program, execute it line by line, follow control flow and data structures, and compute the output after only a short delay (assuming no complex math is involved.) Yet I have only an average working memory and am in fact rather bad at many other cognitive tasks that sound much simpler. Somehow my brain has built a tidy von Neumann architecture over the last decade.

I was surprised and delighted to discover that my brain has built a second such special-purpose device that only seemed to really activate a few days ago. I have been playing chess rather obsessively for about 3.5 years. When I started out my friend would try to play blindfold chess with me where you announce moves in turn without the aid of a board; it was almost impossible for me and I had to give up. Only a few days ago I found that I can now see entire chess positions in my mind and play many moves forward, seeing all the pieces as I go. For someone like me who is very bad at picturing anything in my head, this is astonishing. (But, quite ordinary among dedicated chess players!) My brain must have built a special module just for visualizing chess boards and speculating on moves. This has allowed me to reach roughly the top 1% of online blitz players by rating, and it’s a lot of fun.

To clarify, the experience in both cases is not about having a skill or special knowledge (though those exist, too) — it literally feels like I have extra working memory/RAM/brain hardware for these two domains that allow working on tasks that would seem cognitively impossible in other domains. If you’ve read A Thousand Brains, these structures presumably correspond to learned mental maps plus some method of exploiting sequential memory. This mental machinery took literally thousands of hours to develop, but I also feel that deliberate practice might be more important that raw time; 100 hours of chess tactics training has probably had a much bigger impact than 1000+ hours of playing games.

I had no idea brains could do this. But now it’s happened to me twice and I’m extremely excited to see what other special modules I can encourage it create. Some items on my wishlist: perfect pitch; being able to walk around a city and not get lost; eidetic memory. I’m increasingly suspicious now that all of these can be trained, too.

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