The idea that athletes might be better at making high-speed decisions that are specific to their sport is an intuitive one, based on what we know about the brain and how it changes with deliberate practice. The last few posts have focused on just how athletes’ brains may change as they acquire expertise, and how it is often difficult to truly measure these differences.
A recent study published in The Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine points to some very interesting potential differences in the way that athletes and non-athletes make high-speed decisions.
Groups of college students, half of them division I varsity athletes, half of them pulled from the general student body, performed a virtual Frogger-like task. They walked on a treadmill in front of three ten-foot video screens broadcasting an image of a busy street that they had to cross. Cars on the virtual street whizzed by at speeds varying between 40 and 55 miles per hour, while the students walked and made decisions about whether they could safely get across.
What the researchers found was that athletes had a significantly higher “success” rate than the non-athletes, with success meaning that they weren’t hit by a virtual car. The reason for the higher success rate was not, however, due to the athletes walking faster or dodging cars with their superior agility.
Via New York Times:
What they did do was glance along the street a few more times than the nonathletes, each time gathering slightly more data and processing it more speedily and accurately than the other students.
“They didn’t move faster,” said Art Kramer, the director of the Beckman Institute and a leader in the study of exercise and cognition, who oversaw the research. “But it looks like they thought faster.”
René Marois, the director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt University, who was not involved with the experiment, said, “This is a very interesting study.” The fact that the athletes displayed no outsize physical coordination during the crossings “was surprising,” he wrote in an e-mail. Upon reflection, he added that the finding did have a certain intuitive logic. “To the extent that athletes, in their sport, must routinely make split-second decisions in often very complex environments (e.g., whether to pass or kick the incoming soccer ball), it would make sense to me that they would have superior skill sets in processing the fast-paced information to successfully cross the street.”
Based on these results, it is interesting to speculate about what other tasks high-level athletes might be better at. Driving? Video games maybe? Either way, it is another great piece of evidence that there are very interesting things going on in the athletic brain.