Real Intuition Requires Expertise

“Every Chess master was once a beginner”  — GM Irving Chernev

Watching a high performer navigate quickly through a fast changing landscape one can’t help but notice the ease and speed that decisions are made. High performers make it look easy; decisions come fast with little deliberate thought and they remain accurate. Observers tend to call it ‘a gift’, ‘talent’, ‘instinct’ or ‘intuition’, but all these terms obscure the fact that what we are observing is hard-earned skill.

Effective Intuition Requires Expertise

Previous research (Wan et al 2011) has already shown professional shogi players use different parts of the brain than amateurs; specifically experts were recruiting the precuneus for fast (8 seconds) comprehension of a pattern and the caudate when the problem called for even faster (1 second) these professionals recruited the basal ganglia, specifically the caudate nucleus – a part of the brain involved in action selection. In amateurs the caudate nucleus is not activated.

It wasn’t known was if the observed differences resulted from different training histories or if experts had intrinsically different brain function. In other words were the experts born with different brains or did they acquire altered activation patterns through training?

To answer the question Japanese researchers (Wan et al 2012) recruited 15 novices who underwent 15 weeks of daily intensive training in a simplified version of Japanese chess called mini-shogi. In shogi the board is 9×9 squares and each player has 20 pieces (8 unique), in mini-shogi this is reduced to a 5×5 board with 6 pieces per player. The smaller board with less unique and total pieces obviously reduces game complexity and allows for faster skill acquisition.

Traditional mini-shogi

Traditional mini-shogi board

Westernized mini-shogi

Westernized mini-shogi board

The subjects were given fMRIs at the beginning (2nd or 3rd week) and at the end of the trial (14th  or 15th week) while looking at a game position for 2 seconds and then given 3 seconds to find the next best move – a checkmate. Each trial is then followed by an interruption, a cognitive ‘palate cleanser’ in which the subject is asked to find the opponent’s king.

Caudate - shogi test



Caudate - graphCaudate - correct choiceJNEUROSCI.2312-12.2012

The researchers found expertise was correlated with activation of the caudate nucleus but there were no differences in the other regions of interest. They also report that stronger caudate activation was correlated with correct response.

The results show that reliable quick “intuitive” decisions requires expertise acquired through long-term deliberate practice and activation of the caudate nucleus plays a key role in fast decisions.

Next time you watch a high-performer (science, math, and sport, even a video gamer) do something amazing; don’t cheapen that achievement by calling it talent or instinct. You are watching the result of persistent, deliberate practice. Intuition is a product of skill, of course this also means “I don’t have a talent for _____ ” is not an excuse.

Do dogs have this type of expert intuition? I don’t know. My guess is that if we are to find it would be in something related to tracking or scent detection because of the intensive training that it takes to create a reliable dog. It would be interesting if someone could device an analogous experiment for dogs.

Finally one more point.

This seemingly out of place post came about because I was researching the basal ganglia and its largest structure the striatum. It is called the caudate in primates, in non-primates this structure corresponds to the dorsomedial striatum.

One aspect of the dorsomedial striatum will be explored in the a future post.


Wan X, Nakatani H, Ueno K, Asamizuya T, Cheng K, & Tanaka K (2011). The neural basis of intuitive best next-move generation in board game experts. Science (New York, N.Y.), 331 (6015), 341-6 PMID: 21252348

Wan X, Takano D, Asamizuya T, Suzuki C, Ueno K, Cheng K, Ito T, & Tanaka K (2012). Developing intuition: neural correlates of cognitive-skill learning in caudate nucleus. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 32 (48), 17492-501 PMID: 23197739


6 thoughts on “Real Intuition Requires Expertise

  1. Did you run across any research on artistic, creative or spacial skill in relation to quick thinking (actions), or amateur vs. professional? It seems these skills are quite different in the way the brain processes.

    This research is very interesting finding that the caudate nucleus was active in professionals and not amateurs.

    • I have not run across research on artistic or creative qualities. Spatial thinking… London cabbies (have to memorize shortest routes) activate different areas of their brain when recalling routes (hippocampus) or landmarks (e.g. statue of Churchill)

  2. Interesting, i don’t doubt there are differences between experts and amateurs. On a very basic level, there is the 10,000 hour rule for observing animal behavior and one needs not only the knowledge gained from observation, but one needs to know what they are looking for, this i would think would come from academic studies. It reminds me of research used in Gladwell’s book “Outliers” that basically explains your main point! 😎

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