Chess and the autonomic nervous system: the role of HRV

Chess and the autonomic nervous system: the role of HRV

It appears that the decrease in HRV (Heart Rate Variability) is associated with a deterioration in the results of cognitive tasks in which the prefrontal area is involved. So can HRV be considered as a predictor of cognitive performance?


Advertising message Everyone knows the game of chess. But perhaps not everyone knows that this game is used for the study of some cognitive processes (such as memory and problem solving) (Amidzic et al., 2006; Troubat et al., 2009). Over the years he has ascertained in particular how the prefrontal cortex, linked to decision planning, is important in this game (Koechlin & Hyafil, 2007).

The prefrontal cortex is associated with vagal function (regulating the autonomic nervous system), which can be measured by Heart Rate Variability (HRV) – the variation in the interval between two beats (Thayer et al., 2012).

In the autonomic nervous system we find a dynamic balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems (Shaffer et al., 2014): parasympathetic activity, which leads to an increase in HRV, is active during rest and relaxation-related situations. Sympathetic activity is associated with stressful situations and leads to a reduction in HRV.

HRV is considered a measure of heart-brain interaction (Shaffer et al., 2014) and changes in cognitive and attentional tasks, as well as in the anxiety-provoking response to situations (Porges & Raskin, 1969): when cognitive activity it becomes more intense, there is an increase in sympathetic activity (with relative decrease in the HRV index) (Mukherjee et al., 2011; Luque-Casado et al., 2013). It has also been seen that the decrease in HRV is associated with a deterioration in the results of the cognitive tasks in which the prefrontal area is involved. These results could indicate HRV as a predictor of cognitive performance (Muthukrishnan et al., 2017).

In a recent study (Fuentes-GarcĂ­a et al., 2019) we wanted to verify whether the performance in chess was associated with differences in HRV, in the subjective perception of difficulty, stress and complexity.

The initial hypotheses were that:

Advertisement For this study 16 chess players were recruited – all male, average age 35 years and average ELO score above 1900. These players were subjected to six chess exercises of increasing level (two easy, two medium, two difficult) , having half a minute to solve each one. The players were divided into two performance groups (high and low) based on the results obtained. The HRV index was taken at the baseline and during the exercises; after each level of difficulty, the subjective difficulty, stress and complexity indices were recorded with a Visual Analogue Scale (VAS).

The results showed that – in both groups – there was a decrease in the HRV index as the difficulty of the exercises increased. Furthermore, during the exercises the HRV was significantly higher in the high performance group than in the low performance group. Finally, the low-performance group perceived chess problems more complex than the high-performance group.

In line with the initial hypotheses and with the literature on the subject, these results have shown that in fact there is a modulation of the autonomic nervous system (the decrease in HRV) as the cognitive effort increases also in the game of chess and that this modulation seems to be associated with player performance. This could open a new window that sees HRV as an interesting and useful tool in training players, managing to estimate their cognitive efforts and abilities.