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Learning New Skills Can Help You Think Further Ahead

Recent research sheds light on how you can train your brain to think further ahead.

By Sara Novak
May 9, 2024 1:00 PM
two people playing chess
(Credit: Tsuguliev/Shutterstock)


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Wouldn’t it be great to be able to know someone’s next move and beat them to it? It’s the key to winning a game of chess, negotiating a deal, or winning a round of poker. It makes us better at the tasks at hand, but it may also be that we were better at these skills in the first place.

According to research, expertise lays the groundwork when it comes to thinking farther ahead. The more skill you have in something like chess, the better equipped you are to think steps farther ahead when compared to a novice. In a study published in the journal Nature, researchers found that participants are better able to think multiple moves ahead because they have a better handle on the game. In essence, you can teach yourself to think farther ahead. 

How To Assess the Ability to Think Ahead

Lead study author Bas van Opheusden, who is himself an avid chess player, wanted to choose a methodology that could accurately assess how far participants were able to think ahead. Using board games like chess has typically been more difficult because study participants might not know the rules of the game or how to play it. Instead, researchers used a game called “four-in-a-row” to gauge abilities. Think of it as a game of tic-tac-toe but with an added row.

While the game is simple to learn, there are a number of moves from which to choose, making it a good choice for assessing the ability to think ahead. “The rules are simple but the gameplay itself is actually quite complicated,” says van Opheusden, a research scientist at the AI company Imbue who previously worked in Princeton University’s Griffiths Computational Cognitive Science Lab.

Additionally, with perfect play, a player can win every single time, and it’s not known (and rather unlikely) that the same is true of chess. “And most importantly, it’s really fun,” says van Opheusden. He says that study participants would come back to the lab again and again, asking to play the game. 

Read More: Where Do Thoughts Occur?

Can Smarter People Think Farther Ahead?

Jumping steps ahead has any number of benefits and it’s long been tied to human intelligence. This was not part of van Opheusden’s research and participants did not take IQ tests or other intelligence assessments, but we’ve previously known that thinking ahead is an aspect of intelligence. “I don’t think it’s controversial to say that planning is a component of intelligence,” van Opheusden says.

However, the study also found that learning a skill helps you improve your ability to think ahead, no matter how smart you are. Researchers had the same participants come in four times to assess how practice improved their ability to win games. The more they practiced, the better they got at thinking ahead. 

Read More: The Science Of A Wandering Mind

Does the Ability to Think Ahead Make Us Uniquely Human?

It was previously thought that the ability to think ahead was part of what makes us human, but new research disputes this. A July 2017 study published in the journal Science found that ravens were well-versed in thinking ahead, and we already knew this was true of apes.

“Confirming their forward-planning abilities, birds performed at least as well as apes and small children in this complex cognitive task,” write the study authors. Other research has shown that dolphins also have the ability to think steps ahead.

The bottom line is that if you want to get better at a skill and master your opponent, expertise is the best way to jump steps ahead. No matter the skill, whether it’s chess, poker, tic-tac-toe, or four-in-a-row, the better you are at a task, the more likely you’ll be able to think steps ahead of your opponent. 

Read More: Could Positive Thinking Do More Harm Than Good?

Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

Sara Novak is a science journalist based in South Carolina. In addition to writing for Discover, her work appears in Scientific American, Popular Science, New Scientist, Sierra Magazine, Astronomy Magazine, and many more. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from the Grady School of Journalism at the University of Georgia. She's also a candidate for a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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