We know that the brains of young athletes have a significant effect on their athletic performance. However, every day we learn more about how their environment and habits can have an impact back on their brains. In this week’s edition of the Synapse, we take a look at three new research studies that could boost your budding superstar’s performance by listening to music, taking a nap or even borrowing your favorite PGA golfer’s putter.
Earlier this year, Silvain Moreno, now with Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI) and an expert on neuroeducation, gave 48 preschoolers some cartoon based cognitive training. Half of the group received a music-based training versus visual art-based training for the rest of the group. They tested the children before and after this training for verbal and spatial intelligence while also measuring brain activity with a non-invasive EEG test.
After only twenty days of cognitive training, 90 percent of the the kids in the music-based group showed significant improvements on vocabulary and spatial reasoning tests with corresponding increases in accuracy and reaction times, which was five times greater improvement than the art-based group.
Certainly, better cognition and spatial reasoning can help them on the field or court, as well.
“These results are dramatic not only because they clearly connect cognitive improvement to musical training, but also because the improvements in language and attention are found in completely different domains than the one used for training. This has enormous implications for development and education,” said Dr. Ellen Bialystok, Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at York University and Associate Scientist at Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute.
When they were little, taking a nap was a daily battle for most kids. Fast forward into their teens and you’re lucky to get them out of bed by noon. Well, according to researchers at the City University of New York, that extra sleep can help with relational memory skills. Hiuyan Lau, adjunct psychology instructor, notes that, “Relational memory arises from discretely acquired memory traces, integrated into a network through commonalities, thus allowing flexible applications of past experience to a novel but relevant problem. This flexibility of relational memory parallels an important aspect of learning – generalization.”
Thinking about sports, skills learned through training or previous games may be called on in similar situations in the future. Being able to generalize and apply those past memories to new challenges relies on relational memory.
They gathered 58 undergrad students and taught them the English meanings of Chinese characters that have overlapping semantic components called radicals.
The test group then took a nice daytime nap while the control group did not. They were later tested on new characters sharing the same radicals. Whether the test group took thier nap immediately after the initial learning or even after a delay, they still performed better on identifying the meaning of the new characters.
The authors conclude that, “the results suggest that sleep – even as brief as a nap – facilitates the reorganization of discrete memory traces into flexible relational memory networks.”
If music and sleep doesn’t help, there’s always a tried and true concept to fall back on… superstition. What if you found an old golf putter for sale at a garage sale, only to find out it used to be in the bag of, say, Jack Nicklaus? Now you believe you will have super powers on the green as you summon the old magic of the Golden Bear. The psychological term for this is positive contagion and its exactly what University of Virginia scientists recently tested.
They gathered the baseline putting performance of 41 undergrad golfers and then divided them into two groups. One group was handed a putter that they were told used to belong to Ben Curtis, a PGA golfer who has won over $10 million in his playing career. The control group was given the same model of putter but with no celebrity name attached.
They were shown a practice putting mat and asked to estimate the size of the hole by drawing it with a computer sketch program. Then they were tested on 10 putts for accuracy. Those that were using the “special” putter perceived the hole to be larger than the other group and then beat them in putting accuracy by a significant margin.
Charles Lee, lead researcher for the study, concluded that several forces may be at work here. First, the idea of “object valuation” may have influenced the golfers. Similar to the placebo effect of placing medicinal value on sugar pills, the “healing power” of the Curtis putter may have convinced the test group that the expertise of Curtis would transfer to them.
As Lee writes, “Our results allow for the possibility that the relationship between perception and performance is more complex than previously assumed.” Whether its music, sleep or the putters of the rich and famous, that complexity is indeed real.