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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Athletic Minds

The October 4, 2008 issue of New Scientist contains an article titled "Beautiful Minds" (subscription required to read the entire text) in which Helen Phillips explains that elite athletes differ from ordinary people not only physically but also mentally. It is interesting to speculate whether the minds of elite athletes are changed by the way that the athletes practice and play their sports or if the initial conditions in their minds make them better suited to becoming elite athletes in the first place (the classic nature/nurture debate). Phillips writes:

Many sports require specific patterns of stereotypical body movements, and these certainly leave their mark on the brain. In the somatosensory cortex, which monitors signals from different parts of the body, and the neighboring motor cortex, which controls movements, areas corresponding to the most regularly used body parts expand with use.

Phillips adds:

Good hand-eye coordination can also be traced to a specific part of the brain. Tests in the lab using prisms that alter hand-eye relationships by shifting images to the right or left or turning them upside down reveal that some people adapt more quickly than others. Those with more dynamic hand-eye coordination show greater activity in a region called PEG in the parietal cortex--which contains maps of space and of our bodies--on the opposite side to the movement.

It is interesting but not surprising that hand-eye coordination can be linked to a particular brain region but Phillips' concluding note is perhaps the most fascinating element in the article; there may be a specific molecule that fosters what is colloquially called "mental toughness":

Some people may also have brains that allow them to keep on going when lesser competitors give up. The sensation of tiredness we get from sporting activity seems to be generated not in the muscles but in the brain, through a signaling molecule called interleukin-6. Perhaps this signal is naturally weaker or easier to ignore in some brains. If so, this might be why some athletes can push their bodies beyond the limits that most people are able to endure.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:32 PM

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