As stated yesterday, the purpose of this blog is to talk about the athletic brain. This leads to one obvious question: are athletes’ brains–in any kind of measurable way–different? A lot of research has been done in this area and the answer turns out to be: yes, but that we don’t have the whole picture just yet.
One raw, rough look at how the cognitive skills of athletes might differ comes from a meta-analytic study–research that summarizes and analyzes a broad survey of other studies–performed by Michelle Voss, Arthur Kramer and colleagues at the University of Illinois. In the study, the researchers looked at whether elite athletes performed any differently from the general population on several laboratory cognitive tests. What they found was that, yes, you can see differences in performance between elite athletes and regular Joes.
Athletes perform better on tests of processing speed, which generally test how quickly a subject can respond to a visual or audio cue (See here for the simplest type of processing speed test). They also perform better on tests of divided attention (simple divided attention test here). Larger differences were seen in athletes who play interceptive sports (think baseball, tennis, basketball), as well as in males. But the effects aren’t huge. And these differences in performance had no relationship with just how elite an athlete was–the most “expert” of athletes did not show larger differences than comparatively less expert ones.
This research is interesting, in that it tells us that athletes’ brains are, in fact, different. There are cognitive skills that athletes perform better on, and that these skills can be isolated and tested in the lab. But, this research also gets at the beautiful complexity of the athletic brain, because on these simple cognitive tests, the effects are small, and subtle. All it takes to see that these tests are clearly not capable of fully detecting what makes great athletes special is a viewing of this compilation of Lionel Messi’s 10 best goals from last year. Often, it’s as much a brilliant, split-second decision that makes the goal happen as it is his physical gifts.
We can intuitively see how quick and agile the brain of an elite athlete is, out on the field. But there is a good chance that, on simple laboratory tests of cognition, that same extraordinary athlete is nothing special This seems to suggest that what they have is a very specific, learned kind of reaction and intelligence, one that is very difficult, and much more complicated, to test and separate.