January 5, 2012

DON'T THINK, DO:

Brainy Ballplayers: Elite athletes get their heads in the game (Nick Bascom January 14th, 2012, Science News)

Superstar athletes are revered for their physical prowess, not for what goes on between their ears. And most postgame interviews do little to challenge the notion that athletes have more brawn than brains.

But brainpower has a vital role in elite sports performance, recent research shows.

"Brawn plays a part, but there's a whole lot more to it than that," says John Milton, a neuroscientist at the Claremont Colleges in California.

Whether on the court, field or course, the body depends on the brain for direction. But the brain is a busy taskmaster, with duties beyond guiding motion, making it difficult to focus on that particular job. Like chess masters and virtuoso musicians, superior athletes are better than novices at turning on just the parts of the brain relevant to the desired task, Milton's work reveals. "In professionals, the overall brain activation is much lower, but certain connections are enhanced," he says. In other words, experts employ only the finely tuned neural regions that help enhance performance, without getting bogged down by extraneous information.

Elite athletes' ability to focus the brain might even explain their struggle to eloquently describe performance after the game. Like a starship captain diverting power from life support to bolster shields in a battle, professional athletes temporarily shut down the memory-forming regions of the brain so as to maximize activity in centers that guide movement.

"That's why they usually thank God or their moms," says cognitive psychologist Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago. "They don't know what they did, so they don't know what else to say."

It's not stupidity; it's selectivity. And in the last few years scientists have been able to visually capture this concentrated, purposeful neural concert that takes place in the expert athlete's brain. But even these vibrant brain scans reveal only part of the success story. Other recent studies demonstrate how athletes' brains seamlessly interact with the muscular system to perfect and deploy movements -- and how the athletic brain anticipates actions in advance and updates planned responses as needed.

By examining how such brain processes lead to excellence in sports, as well as what goes wrong when athletes blow it in the big game, scientists think they can enhance training techniques and improve performance under pressure.


Posted by at January 5, 2012 6:29 AM
  

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