Magnus Carlsen’s Brain

One of the things listed under favorites on my computer is “brain science,” a subject with which I have been fascinated most of my life. The most recent article to be included was, “Studying Oversize Brain Cells for Links to Exceptional Memory,” by Carl Zimmer, dated Febuary 12, 2015, in the New York Times. (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/13/science/studying-oversize-brain-cells-for-links-to-exceptional-memory.html?hpw&rref=science&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&module=well-region&region=bottom-well&WT.nav=bottom-well&_r=0)

“In 2010, a graduate student named Tamar Gefen got to know a remarkable group of older people. They had volunteered for a study of memory at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. Although they were all over age 80, Ms. Gefen and her colleagues found that they scored as well on memory tests as people in their 50s. Some complained that they remembered too much. She and her colleagues referred to them as SuperAgers.”

“Recently, Ms. Gefen’s research has taken a sharp turn. At the outset of the study, the volunteers agreed to donate their brains for medical research. Some of them have died, and it has been Ms. Gefen’s job to look for anatomical clues to their extraordinary minds.”

“Ms. Gefen and her colleagues are now starting to publish the results of these post-mortem studies. Last month in The Journal of Neuroscience, the scientists reported that one of the biggest differences involves peculiar, oversize brain cells known as von Economo neurons. SuperAgers have almost five times as many of them as other people.”

“Learning what makes these brains special could help point researchers to treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and other kinds of mental decline. But it is hard to say how an abundance of von Economo neurons actually helps the brain.”

“We don’t know what they’re doing yet,” said Dr. Mary Ann Raghanti, an anthropologist at Kent State University who was not involved in the new study.”

“As soon as the Northwestern scientists began enrolling SuperAgers in their study in 2007, the team took high-resolution scans of their brains. The SuperAgers had an unusually thick band of neurons in a structure called the anterior cingulate cortex, the scientists found; it was 6 percent thicker on average than those of people in their 50s.” (The anterior cingulate cortex, also known as Area 25, is a region that is located towards the front of the corpus callosum, in the medial frontal lobe. This region is involved in decision making and emotional regulation as well as vital to the regulation of physiological processes, such as blood pressure and heart rate. In particular, the key functions of the anterior cingulate cortex revolve around:

Detection of errors or shortfalls from some standard (Nieuwenhuis, Ridderinkhof, Blom, Band, &; Kok, 2001)
Anticipation and preparation before task performance
Regulation of emotions. http://www.psych-it.com.au/Psychlopedia/article.asp?id=263)

“Scientists have found von Economo neurons in only a few other mammals, such as apes, whales and cows.”

“John M. Allman of Caltech, who has studied von Economo neurons for 20 years, suspects that the neurons provide long-distance transmission of nerve impulses. The large size of the cells helps maintain electrical signals as they travel across the brain.

“My guess is they represent a fast relay,” he said.”

Noice that after “20 years” Mr. Allman “suspects” and has to “guess.” This is cutting-edge brain science in its infancy. The next paragraph jumped out, causing me to consider some of the things other elite chess players have said about World Human Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen. Consider what the former World Human Chess Champion, Viswanathan Anand, had to say after losing the second match for the Crown against Magnus, “My nerves were the first to crack.” (http://blogs.wsj.com/dailyfix/2014/11/23/magnus-carlsen-repeats-at-world-chess-championship/)

There is also this, “In a battle of nerves Norwegian World chess champion Magnus Carlsen held up his own better, said the losing challenger from India Viswanathan Anand on Sunday.” (http://ibnlive.in.com/news/magnus-carlsen-held-up-his-nerves-better-anand/514494-5-23.html)

In an interview by Colin McGourty at Chess24 GM Levon Aronian was asked, “What’s behind the phenomenon of Magnus Carlsen, who seized the chess crown?” Levon answered by saying, “I’d say it’s all about his incredible calm and nerves which, strangely enough, failed him at times in the recent World Championship match. But overall Magnus’ main secret is his composure and the absence of any soul-searching after mistakes during a game. At times, after all, you blunder and then hate yourself, saying: “You should be ashamed of yourself – children are watching”. But Carlsen doesn’t have that. He fights to the end, even if he’s playing badly.” (https://chess24.com/en/read/news/aronian-magnus-main-secret-is-his-composure)

From where does this “incredible calm and nerves” emanate? Could it be that Magnus Carlsen has oversized brain cells, specifically, brain cells known as von Economo neurons? Consider this written in New In Chess 2014/5, about Magnus, “Carlsen knows how to control his emotions, as can be gleaned from his lack of fear, no matter how tense the situation gets on the board.” This can be found in “NIC’s Cafe under “Total Control.” The article continues, “We saw a fine demonstration of his ‘mental control’ during the first free day of Norway Chess, when the players visited a school tournament and some of them were tempted to play Brainball. In Brainball, two players sit opposite each other wearing a headband that registers their brain activity. The aim is to reduce your brain activity as much as possible, as this will set a little ball moving towards your opponent. Once it reaches your opponent, you win. Of the grandmasters that had a go at Brainball, Aronian and Carlsen were the best at relazing their brains, but in their direct encounter the World Champion was in a class of his own. The cursor that indicated his mental activity dropped so low that an admiring colleague sighed:’Incredible. He seems to have total control of his brain.'”

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One thought on “Magnus Carlsen’s Brain

  1. blisswrites says:

    “If you want your tree to produce plenty o’ fruit, you’ve got to cut it back from time to time. Same thing with your neural cells. Some people might call it brain damage. I call it prunin’.”
    ― Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume

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