Inner strength

Photo by Flickr user joshjanssen. Click for sourceDiscover Magazine has an excellent piece by Carl Zimmer on the brains of elite athletes and how they have adapted with practice to process movement and the body differently.

There are lots of fascinating aspects to the article, but this particularly caught my eye:

To understand how athletes arrive at these better solutions, other neuroscientists have run experiments in which athletes and nonathletes perform the same task. This past January Claudio Del Percio of Sapienza University in Rome and his colleagues reported the results of a study in which they measured the brain waves of karate champions and ordinary people, at rest with their eyes closed, and compared them. The athletes, it turned out, emitted stronger alpha waves, which indicate a restful state. This finding suggests that an athlete’s brain is like a race car idling in neutral, ready to spring into action.

Del Percio’s team has also measured brain waves of athletes and nonathletes in action. In one experiment the researchers observed pistol shooters as they fired 120 times. In another experiment Del Percio had fencers balance on one foot. In both cases the scientists arrived at the same surprising results: The athletes’ brains were quieter, which means they devoted less brain activity to these motor tasks than nonathletes did. The reason, Del Percio argues, is that the brains of athletes are more efficient, so they produce the desired result with the help of fewer neurons. Del Percio’s research suggests that the more efficient a brain, the better job it does in sports. The scientists also found that when the pistol shooters hit their target, their brains tended to be quieter than when they missed.

There’s an interesting distinction here between what it means to have a quiet mind and what it means to have a quiet brain.

The EEG studies mentioned above found that during skilled athletic performance there were an increased number of alpha waves – electrical brain activity between 8-12Hz (cycles or waves per second) – usually associated with wakeful relaxation. In other words, mental calm.

However, these waves do not necessarily imply that the brain is similarly relaxed. In fact, a study that directly measured the link between alpha waves and the brain’s use of glucose found that more energy was need as alpha waves increased.

This whole brain energy / activity link is a little crude, however, and a more recent study using fMRI – a technique that measures the difference in oxygenated blood – has found increased alpha waves linked to reduced activity in parts of the occipital, temporal and frontal lobes, but with increased activity in the deeper brain areas the thalamus and insula.

In other words, it’s not that the whole brain just becomes ‘quieter’ (although you could say this about some specific areas) but that it seems to reconfigure the distribution of work.

Rather than becoming ‘relaxed’ the brain seem to become more ‘finely tuned’ with practice.

Link to Discover article on the brains of athletes.

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