The Mental Juggler

An ode to the part of our brain that keeps all the balls in the air: our working memory.

(This article originally appeared in the Master Skill Newsletter for June 6, 2023.)

Hi, it’s Aiden.

Sometimes I think of my mind as a juggler.

Not a great juggler, mind you. But fine. Knows how to keep a few balls in the air.

He’ll drop a ball if he gets distracted, or overwhelmed, or too excited.

His juggling technique gets messy if he’s put under too much pressure.

This juggler is my working memory. The part of my mind that holds the information I need for the task at hand.

Each of his juggling balls represent a discrete chunk of that information.

And the balls are always on the move. Needing constant effort and energy to keep active.

We all have a juggler in our mind.

If you hear an important phone number and you can’t write it down right away, what do you do? You repeat it to yourself over and over again.

That’s your juggler flinging the ball labeled “phone number” from hand to hand, keeping it in the air.

If you stop repeating the number, the ball drops. You forget.

In day-to-day tasks, our jugglers tend to do fine. They’re well adapted for our lives.

Sure, they’ll misplace our keys here and there. But, generally speaking, they get by.

When we’re playing Chess, however, our jugglers struggle. They screw up with tremendous regularity.

A huge percentage of the mistakes we make in a Chess game can come back to our juggler.

It’s not their fault, they’re doing the best they can. The problem is mathematical.

In the Master Skill Series, I described it like this:

Psychological studies have shown that the human brain has a few key limits in cognition.
One such limit is that brains can only hold 7 pieces of information in our short-term memory at once.
That’s an average – some people get about 9, others about 5.
It’s an idea I’ve heard in my self-development reading over the years.
If we try and push beyond that limit, we face overwhelm and fuzziness.
Therein lies a problem:
We can hold 7 things in our heads; there are 32 pieces on a Chessboard.
One of those numbers is bigger than the other.

Our juggler can have 7 balls in the air at one time.

But Chess asks them to juggle 32 pieces, 64 squares, threats, sightlines, theory, variations… Our poor jugglers can’t keep up.

It’s too much.

So they pick which balls they keep in the air.

You’re on a big attack, so your juggler decides to focus on the information related to your attack.

They juggle your queen, your rook, your knight, that weakness on g7, the opponent’s defenses, your calculations and variations, that little bit of counterplay of which you need to be wary.

Your juggler works furiously to hold on to all this. Trying to keep all those balls in the air.

But on the floor lie many other discarded balls. The ones they dropped to make room for the “important” things.

That pawn on b2 that’s irrelevant to the action. Your opponent’s knight on the opposite side of the board that would take too long to join the fray.

Dropped, discarded, out of your head for the moment.

Unfortunately, one of those discarded balls represents your opponent’s bishop.

You haven’t thought about the bishop during your calculations. Your juggler dropped that ball.

The bishop is practically invisible to you.

You move your queen to begin the crushing attack you calculated… and lose it immediately to that bishop you forgot about.

Your juggler tried their best. But they weren’t good enough.

Your dominant advantage crushed by a one-move blunder.

Working memory errors like this plague players at every level of the game.

As you progress through the ranks, the consequences stop being quite as bad as a lost queen. But the errors are still there.

You definitely make them too.

They’re the errors you beat yourself up about most. The “stupid” mistakes you tell yourself you “should” be beyond by now.

But we don’t make errors like this because we’re stupid. We don’t make them because we’re bad players.

We make them because our poor juggler is overloaded. Our working memory doesn’t have the capacity for all that information.

To improve in this area and clear up those mistakes, we need increase our working memory capacity.

We could do it two ways.

The first thing we could try is train our juggler to juggle more balls. Give our working memory more slots for information.

Unfortunately, that’s not realistic. There’s not much we can do to increase the number of slots we have. It a limit in our brain.

If you naturally have 7 slots, you’ve got 7 slots. Naturally have 4? You’ve got 4. Not much you can do about it.

But that’s ok, because the other option is better anyway.

The other option is we train ourselves to hold more information in each slot.

Make each one of our juggling balls mean more.

Juggle more information with less effort. Allow fewer dropped, discarded details.

No more forgotten bishops.

This sort of improvement doesn’t happen by itself. We can’t passively increase the capacity of our working memory.

But until we improve, we leave ourselves wide open for these “stupid” mistakes that we “should” be beyond by now.

It requires active, focused, consistent training.

Specifically, blindfold training.

The training is simple, but it isn’t easy.

When you close our eyes and try to follow some moves, solve a puzzle, or play a game, you are forcing our juggler to work super hard.

Way harder than they ever need to work during an actual Chess game.

And when you start, you will suck at it. Your juggler will panic. You’ll lose track of what’s going on.

But with some practice things become easier. You’ll get further and further into games. You’ll understand more about each position, even though you can’t see it.

More information, less effort.

Blindfold training works because it isolates and intensifies the exact problems we experience in our working memory.

When we train blindfolded, we isolate all the pressure onto our working memory.

And obviously, this is way more intense than doing the same things when you see the board.

The isolate and intensify combination is powerful, because it forces our brain to adapt.

To keep up with blindfold training, our brains must strengthen their working memory.

They must build the systems, structures, and representations needed to handle this insane amount of input.

And they do. Because our brains can do amazing things when we point them in the right direction.

With some time and practice, we return to a regular game of Chess and we notice we’re not making near as many “stupid” errors.

Our jugglers feel more comfortable keeping the balls in the air. We can trust they’re keeping track of everything.

And we can focus on simply finding the best move.

That’s a powerful spot to be. One very few Chess players ever experience.

One I hope you’ll experience for yourself as well.

If you want to test your own blindfold skills, try the Don’t Move Blindfold Trainer.

If you want to check out some of the free resources I offer, head over to my Resources page.

I also invite you to join me and the 100+ strong community in the Don’t Move Training System.

If you want to take your blindfold training seriously, there’s no better place.

If you take away only one thing from this email, make it this:

Mistakes in Chess are not a reflection of intelligence. You are not stupid.

Brains are awesome, yours included.

Here’s to the journey,

 

Picture of Aiden

Aiden

About the Author

Aiden Rayner writes about how to make the adult brain better at Chess. Using science-backed insights, he works to change the narratives around adult improvement, and help adults discover the power of their Chess brains.

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