Scientists discover Scrabble experts use more of their brain to solve word puzzles

New research shows that when deciding whether a group of letters is or is not a word, experts in the board game Scrabble rely more on brain regions not typically used for word recognition.

This study, conducted by Andrea Protzner and colleagues at the University of Calgary, Canada, is the first to show the particular brain differences between Scrabble experts and non-experts. This work is currently in press in the journal Cortex.

Experts process information differently than non-experts. Previous work on expertise, much of which has relied on chess masters, has shown that improved abilities in such games can develop in one of two ways.

First, with practice the brain networks typically involved in a task become more efficient at processing information for that task.

Second, true experts go one step further and develop new processing networks, often recruiting brain regions not typically involved in the task in order to further improve performance. This latter step is slower to develop and involves structural changes in the brain.

In a prior study, competitive Scrabble players (Scrabble experts) were shown to be faster and more efficient on a variety of word puzzles and anagram tasks. In particular, Scrabble experts are better at identifying whether a series of letters is a real word, which is an important aspect of Scrabble gameplay. This study extended these findings in order to identify brain differences in Scrabble experts.

Researchers compared 12 competitive Scrabble players and 12 non-expert age- and sex-matched controls. The study first replicated previous work showing that Scrabble experts are indeed better at word fluency, vocabulary, and anagrams, and also faster at making lexical decisions (Is this a word?).

Researchers then used fMRI scans to compare brain activation while performing a lexical-decision task between the two groups. When making lexical decisions, Scrabble experts relied more on brain regions supporting working memory and visual perception rather than word meaning. These results are similar to those of chess masters in that they suggest that the experts are processing game-relevant information differently than non-experts.

“These findings suggest that Scrabble experts rely less on word meaning, and develop a different behavioral repertoire that is not available to the control group,” the authors report. In other words, Scrabble experts are better at assessing a word’s authenticity without knowing the word’s actual meaning.

Interestingly, the authors suggest that such expertise and the recruitment of additional brain areas for these context-specific tasks could actually impair processing in other contexts. More research is needed to compare the performance of experts in non-expert domains.