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Super Scrabble Players Have Unusual Brains 142

An anonymous reader writes "Being a competitive Scrabble player apparently warps your brain, in a good way, according to researchers at the University of Calgary in Canada. At the high level of the game, players quickly judge whether words, or possible words are real based in large part on their visual stimuli — not an inherent knowledge of the word or its meaning. 'These findings indicate that Scrabble players are less reliant on the meaning of words to judge whether or not they are real, and more flexible at word recognition using orthographic information. ... Competitive Scrabble players are visual word recognition experts and their skill pushes the bounds of what we previously considered the end-point of development of the word recognition system.'"
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Super Scrabble Players Have Unusual Brains

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  • Cause and Effect? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 17, 2011 @08:51PM (#37125024)

    Does being a competitive Scrabble player warp your brain, or are those with warped brains more likely to become competitive Scrabble players?

    • I think it's a little of both, but mainly the former. One adapts to their environment, and playing Scrabble requires you to see words differently than most. Similarly, if you play enough Game! [] you'll start seeing puns in everything!

      • Playing Kingdom of Loathing [] has about the same effect.
      • One adapts to their environment, and playing Scrabble requires you to see words differently than most.

        Indeed. The development of this ability in hardcore Scrabble players is similar to the Tetris effect [].

      • I know one champion Scrabble player is Sal Piro, who is also the president of the Rocky Horror Fan Club. He's a neat guy, in the Guinness Book of World Records for having seen the same movie the most number of times.

        There's a certain mindset there.

    • There certainly might be some weeding on the basis of subtler inherent capabilities lower down in the ranks; but the sheer amount of drill and practice(both playing and hammering at word lists) required to make a good scrabble player suggests a major 'effect' component.

      I do find the notion that this is a 'good' development(outside of the environment of scrabble, where it is obviously useful) sort of interesting. When I am reading, the most pleasant, fastest, and most engaged state is when the words becom
      • Although interesting, that Stroop Effect online test has to be one of the worst examples of an experiment I've ever seen!

    • That would depend on your [C][A][T][H][A][R][I][N][O][S][I][S] and your [S][U][B][L][I][D][U][P][L][A][R][I][E][T][Y].

  • by hamster_nz ( 656572 ) on Wednesday August 17, 2011 @08:57PM (#37125058)

    Having read "Word Freaks - : Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players" you can see how the author starts with a writer's perspective on words, and through his attempts to become a competitive player he alters his brain. Towards the end of the book he is seeing anagrams everywhere and words become separated from their meanings...

    "Jaxqiz" (n): An unlikely word that is only useful for playing scrabble with.

    • It's similar how a musician listens to music is completely different from someone who doesn't play any sort of instrument. I read an interesting article about it and a few of my friends complain that they can't just listen to new music their brain always has to analyze it.
      • by blair1q ( 305137 )

        Which makes 99% of music more interesting.

        • I'd like to know where this world you live in, where 99% of music is more interesting if you analyze it more deeply, is at. Here where I live, listening carefully to all of the pop music released for quite some time now just makes me start screaming for the head of the guy who invented Autotune. The background music at some places nowadays makes me wish for death if I accidentally slip into careful listening.

          • Every music style has something. It's hard to top the charts without having something at least. Listen to how Kanye alternates themes as well as any Clementi sonatina. Listen to the power in the performance by Rihanna - the sheer, raw emotion of it can be as overwhelming as the emotion of Beethoven's fifth, second movement. Even with auto-tune.....come on, the skill of being able to sing in tune is not the most important skill in entertaining.

            Sure, a lot of all music is derivative, and most of it won't su
          • by blair1q ( 305137 )

            You live in a world where more than 1% of music gets less interesting if you analyze it?

            • Yes; I haven't heard a song on the American pop charts for over a decade now that I really enjoyed hearing. And a significant portion of current pop music, easily >1%, uses processing such as autotune-as-effect that drives me batty if I notice it. I used to review audio equipment, I notice fake sound processing, and that particular case I can't stand it. I'll happily listen to older voice processing as effect equipment such as a vocoder [], something about this latest variation puts me on edge.

              And the an

              • by blair1q ( 305137 )

                So you made autotuned pop music interesting by analyzing it here. Because otherwise it's pointless shite.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Stradenko ( 160417 )

      Speaking as a seasoned Scrabble player, I think you mean "definately."

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Speaking as a seasoned Scrabble player, I think you mean "definately."

        You must not be very good at scrabble.

        • by mwvdlee ( 775178 )

          Unless he can convince other players his words are real words, in that case he would be good... [R][D][Y][Q][W][L][U][Z][L][Y] good.

        • Speaking as a seasoned Scrabble player, I think you mean "definately."

          You must not be very good at scrabble.

          GP's error is almost as funny as the traditional spelling/grammar mistake when being a spelling/grammar Nazi here.

    • couldn't help myself

    • by gl4ss ( 559668 )

      like computer games become boring once you miss the magic and see exactly how the so called AI works, it becomes just a bell'n'whistles machine.

      so, "for the good" here forgets that ignorance is a bliss.

  • It's been a long time since I've had to see words as individual letters to understand them, even if they were unfamiliar.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      This isn't about understanding how to read a word; it's about instinctively knowing whether or not a particular group of letters is a real word, without having seen it before or knowing what it means.

      • It seems perfectly cromulent to me.
      • Exactly,
        There are expert level players from various Asian countries who have a basic grasp of english but they sure know what is and is not a valid string of letters to play.

        I used to play in tournaments and even have been to the open National tourney but was never that good. My wife is good but she doesn't like tournaments anymore but she can make the letters just dance in her head in half a second for what will take me 15 seconds of shuffling the tiles around on the rack. At that level the definition is j

      • by blair1q ( 305137 )

        O rly?

    • You should be cautioned, I't's more than education, and it can't be auctioned to the highest bidder.

      (A top scrabble player would have a smile now - hint: look at the nine letter words).

      • Honest question, I'm not a top scrabble player, so is that why I don't get the significance of them being 9 letter words and not 7? Or is it a cautionary tale about playing the word "ion" in vulnerable areas of the board lest it be co-opted by another player.
        • "cautioned", "education", and "auctioned" are all anagrams of each other.

          It would be a Scrabbler player's wet dream to have an open 'o'+'n' on the board, and 'a', 'c', ‘d’, ‘e', 'i', 't', 'u' sitting in your tile rack... especially if it was on the bottom row so you could get two triple word scores

          • by blair1q ( 305137 )

            Too many low-scoring letters.

            Scrabblers' wet dreams are words like quixotry and zymurgy.

          • "cautioned", "education", and "auctioned" are all anagrams of each other.

            Yah...thanks...I'm not a top scrabble player, but I got that. ;) I questioned the significance of them being 9-letter words because I assumed that a top player would not be playing someone who had left an open 'on' / 'ion' in a vulnerable area of the board. I almost said as much in my original post. I thought perhaps I had missed some even more obscure gambit known only to "top players"! :)

        • They're anagrams, so you could play whichever was possible based on the letters that you had and the ones on the board. "Cautioned" and "auctioned" differ only in the first three letters, but if there's a double or triple letter score multiplier around that part of the board that can make a difference in the score
  • And some of the people on the tv show where where unusual as well. []

  • What nonsense. (Score:2, Interesting)

    How is recognizing a valid word without knowing anything about it useful, outside of Scrabble and similar contrivances? I watched Word Wars [] some years ago about competition Scrabble players, and let me tell you, these are not smart people. They are people who have dumped all of their lives and meager talents into memorizing all the "valid" seven character patterns in English. They don't know meanings, they are not particularly literate, they just know what pattern of characters is valid and what pattern isn
    • Re:What nonsense. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 17, 2011 @09:46PM (#37125328)

      How is recognizing a valid word without knowing anything about it useful, outside of Scrabble and similar contrivances? I watched Word Wars [] some years ago about competition Scrabble players, and let me tell you, these are not smart people. They are people who have dumped all of their lives and meager talents into memorizing all the "valid" seven character patterns in English. They don't know meanings, they are not particularly literate, they just know what pattern of characters is valid and what pattern isn't. I don't think this is particularly praiseworthy, and to try to look at it physiologically as a special positive aspect seems to me to be in denial of who these people really are what limited abilities they truly have.

      Being a phenomenal scrabble player is notable in exactly the same way as being a phenomenal sprinter is notable. Good sprinters have also dumped all of their lives into figuring out how to run the fastest under very constrained conditions. Their ability doesn't help them outside of it. By your argument, we should ignore almost all record setters, as the elite in a field are often those who disregard all else.

      Instead, we are amazed by sprinters going faster today then medical science previously thought possible. I am amazed by Scrabble players specializing their brains beyond what was thought possible. Whether the act of such dedication to anything is healthy is debatable, but the results are amazing.

      • I accept your extension, we should ignore almost all record holders. Wow, that guy is faster than the last guy who was really fast? Who gives a shit. That's not producing anything useful for anybody.

        What society needs are innovators, analyzers, synthesizers, and creative minds. Not near zombies who can sort character strings and nothing more, or obsessive musclebound athletes most of whom achieve very little of substance once their physical exploits fade.

        I encourage you to also watch Word Wars and see w
        • My guess is you never read Brave New World. Read that and then come back and tell me that society really should be dictating what people can and cannot do with their lives.
          • by Dionysus ( 12737 )

            Or maybe he has, and thought that was the world he wants to live in?

          • Who said anything about dictating? Just because I don't value something doesn't mean I want to use the state's monopoly on force to ensure that nobody does it. People must be free to do things that are not valuable in order for there to be any chance of happiness for people in society. By the same token nothing obligates or should force me to value something I think is stupid.
        • Word Wars was a not very exciting documentary about tournament Scrabble produced by a tournament Scrabble player, mostly about his layabout friends on the East Coast. He picked bizarre personalities on purpose.

          I play tournament Scrabble, decidedly not at the expert level, but I can tell you that while we're all a quirky group of people, for the most part there is a good mix of educated professionals amongst the guys that have to bunk 4 a room at a tournament because they can't hold a job lest it affect the

          • Word Wars was focused on people who were or had a reasonable chance of becoming tournament champions. I don't disagree that there are tournament players who are balanced people and good citizens, but at the absolute "top" of the game it's misfits and whackjobs.
        • by mwvdlee ( 775178 )

          What society needs are innovators, analyzers, synthesizers, and creative minds. Not near zombies who can sort character strings and nothing more, or obsessive musclebound athletes most of whom achieve very little of substance once their physical exploits fade.

          Athletes do serve a purpose in society; entertainment. Just the sheer magnitude of sports coverage on TV should make it clear that athletes enterain a lot of people. And seeing as you are reading and commenting on Slashdot about scrabble players - something without any obvious merit to society - surely you will understand the value of entertainment.
          Top scrabble player provide some entertainment to other scrabble players. In this sense they like the athletes, but for a much smaller group of spectators.

          • While I agree that entertainment has value, at the same time I think it is frequently overvalued, and that entertainers of all stripes are overpaid in the top tier. Hollywood actors and pro athletes/sports players are not doing things that should merit millions of dollars. However because their simple talents engage simple minds, uncountable boors fling their meager earnings at the feet of these panderers, exchanging any hope of achieving personal comfort and security through diligence and thrift for the th
            • by mwvdlee ( 775178 )

              Entertainers/athletes are overpaid when they earn their promotors/teams less money than they cost.
              If it takes simple minds to pay their wages... simple minds have just as much right to be entertained as anybody else.
              Any other reason to call somebody "overpaid" is just jealousy.

              • I know how markets work, homeslice. You're conflating the criticism of a value of a thing morally with the value of a thing as defined by those who pay for it (the market). In the end I'm saying that people should value things less than they do, not that markets should artificially lower the value of things that people obviously value highly by nature. I am criticizing the motivations and tastes which, run through the machinations of the market, produce the reality that is observed. I am not criticizing the
                • by mwvdlee ( 775178 )

                  Your criticism wasn't just with the "moral value" (taste) of something, it was with the price ("overpaid").
                  Note that I didn't talk about this socalled "moral value"; there's simply no argueing taste. I only commented on the "overpaid" part, which is effectively a result of the market.
                  It could be argued that the price is affected by your personal taste, since you're not creating any demand. If sufficient people shared your taste, these people wouldn't get paid at all instead of being "overpaid".
                  p.s. Ad homin

                  • You're almost getting it, but it tires me to rehash the same points to cajole you to something you could understand already.

                    P.S. If you think 'homeslice' is ad hominem, you might want to look into what it means [] first.
      • by m50d ( 797211 )
        The contest and constraints are a lot less artificial for sprinters. Sure the 100m distance is pretty arbitrary, but changing it to 80m or 120m wouldn't make a lot of difference to who won. Whereas scrabble is just about one particular arbitrary set of rules that the original inventors picked.
    • At what point did you read the article suggesting that these skills were useful or implied "smart"? Saying that players are better at word recognition than researchers thought was possible is not implying word recognition has any particular value.

    • Re:What nonsense. (Score:4, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 17, 2011 @09:59PM (#37125396)

      I'm a graphic designer, it comes in very handy. At work I catch a lot of mistakes that would have otherwise gone to print. Sometimes while quickly glancing at a page, incorrect words will just stick out to me, even without directly reading them. Sometimes we get medical terms or other words I'm not familiar with and the computer spellchecker doesn't have either, and I usually have a good hunch one way or the other.

      • My wife is almost OCD about spelling. Sometime it seems instinctive.

        She missed her calling, should have been a proofreader.

    • what the hell are contrivances?*

      besides 19 points

    • by maxume ( 22995 )

      So you are upset by the throwaway "in a good way" in the summary?

      I think it at least partially means "in a way that aids the playing of Scrabble" as opposed to "in a way that makes it difficult for them to function in society".

      The existence of the correlation is certainly interesting, if they can demonstrate that it is a training effect and figure out how it happens, it might be possible to apply that understanding to training for other tasks (there are shades of the focused from "A Deepness in the Sky" her

  • Is being a competitive scrabble player causing the brain to warp? Or is having this 'warped' brain a general advantage to becoming a competitive scrabble player?
  • by codesherpa ( 2025264 ) on Wednesday August 17, 2011 @09:47PM (#37125332)
    I recently wrote an application to find the best location to play a word for scrabble thinking it would be an easy task, boy was I wrong. Sure, finding the highest scoring word for the letters on your rack was straightforward, tricky, but straightforward (the key is to think of the board and your letters as an organization of tiles rather than words). But then I wanted it to compete with an existing application like Quackle and I started to realize how difficult it would be.

    Pro's are constantly analyzing the board and thinking about their opponent's next turn as well as their own next turn. On every possible turn they think about stuff like not leaving words that can be hooked with an 's', not leaving a rack with duplicate letters or a rack with too many vowels or consonants, not leaving words open to be played next to premium locations, when to play or keep Q's and blanks, how to be the first one out, and a bunch of even more complicated stuff. Oh, and don't forget that they still have to find all the words that can be made from their letters and the open locations on the board. Memorizing the better part of 180,000 words seems like the easy part.

    The fact that pro's can do all of that in their head is pretty amazing. I have no problem saying that the top scrabble players are equal in their ability to chess grandmasters.
    • by cmaxx ( 7796 )

      Lots of 'not's there.. sometimes it's a good thing to leave those things open - to open up the board, and get an opportunity for yourself from your opponent's next play. I've seen boards shut down to a stalemate by adhering to those 'not' rules.

    • by S77IM ( 1371931 )

      Have you tried a game search algorithm? It seems like you have the move-generation part handled, and a static board evaluation function should be easy to write.

        -- 77IM

  • by 93 Escort Wagon ( 326346 ) on Wednesday August 17, 2011 @09:56PM (#37125376)

    Apparently being a super Scrabble player renders a person unable to reproduce.

    Or was it "unlikely"?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    that musicians hear sound differently. Duh.

  • by ciaran_o_riordan ( 662132 ) on Wednesday August 17, 2011 @10:35PM (#37125556) Homepage

    We've all heard of the research showing that London taxi drivers have one part of their brain enlarged by their work.

    More recently, research shows that this comes at the cost of reducing their memory for other things: []

    Becoming a super-specialist in a very narrow field, such as a Scrabble master, might have the same effect.

    • This may be so... I have heard an friend talk of a leading theoretical physicist who needed help from the university cafe staff to get the select the correct change to pay for his lunch.

      I wonder if he had transcended numbers completely?

  • 1) Memorize every 2, 3 and 4 letter word, especially those that use x, q and z.
    2) Memorize all prefixes and suffixes.
    3) Onomatopoeias are acceptable. (brr, brrr, kapow, whoosh, ooh, aah, etc) Basically most any "word" you will find used to verbally illustrate physical action in a comic book.
    4) Familiarize yourself with words that contain a high number of vowels and consonants along with those that contain either no vowels or consonants. (aalii, cwrths, etc.)

    The above basic tips will come in handy, and
    • For instance, in scrabble, using the X (8) points on a triple letter score (played in both directions) will net a minimum base score of 52 points. An example of this would be a combination of AX, XU, AT.

      <pedant>50 points.</pedant>

      • No, it's 52. Go back and look at the scrabble board again. You're forgetting to count the other two letters. X(3) 24 x 2 = 48 A, U, or T (both ways) + 2 = 50 The other two letters +2 = 52.
  • I wonder watching that old TV/television game show version show these too!

  • Super Scrabble Players Have Unusual Brains?

    And Super Chess Players have usual brains? Of course I haven't read TFA, but really?

  • I am kicking myself for posting this but....right now one of the tags on this story is the work "cromulant". That's spelled "cromulent", people!

    /by internet convention
    //really can't help myself
    ///seldom play scrabble but like it

  • What's not well appreciated yet is that the human brain is mostly visual [], and so is human thought []. It's also the most powerful way to organize memory []. The primacy of "The Word," of language-type coding, diverts us from this reality. Yet linguistic meaning is based on image schemas [] which are predominantly visuo-spatial. However, there is some evidence that in humans some aspects of linguistic thought have been brought into rough parity with the visuo-spatial [] in terms of dedicated support in the brain.

  • Might be related to the skill that makes people good spellers. I know how to spell thousands of words whose meaning I am shaky at best on. And have always wondered whether that makes them part of my "vocabulary" or not.
  • Expert Tic-Tac-Toe players are very good at recognizing Xs and Os.

  • Bingo.

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