It looks like the more athletic person has ‘beat’ the sedentary bookworms as far as smarts, that is cognitive function compared to the average university student in a new study from the University of Montreal and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. The study is published this month in the journal Scientific Reports.
The athletes or ‘jocks’ weren’t compared to the brightest university students such as physics and engineering majors at the most elite schools such as M.I.T. Instead, the ‘jocks’ were compared to the average university student. And the athletes pitted against the average university student, won in the area of cognitive functions such as learning.
English Premier League soccer players, NHL hockey players, France’s Top 14 club rugby players, and even elite amateur athletes have better developed cognitive functions than the average university student, according to a perception study undertaken by Professor Jocelyn Faubert of the University of Montreal’s School of Optometry. Check out the abstract of the study, “Professional athletes have extraordinary skills for rapidly learning complex and neutral dynamic visual scenes,” published January 31, 2013 in the journal Scientific Reports.
What makes elite athletes so special?
Do brains of athletes anatomically and functionally differ from non-athletes and does this difference relate to performance level? A recent paper showed that high-level athletes have increased cortical thickness in a few areas of the brain and that this increased anatomical volume is correlated with the level of athletic training, according to another research article published in the journal PLOS One, “Increased Cortical Thickness in Sports Experts: A Comparison of Diving Players with the Controls.”
The new perception study reveals information that could eventually help people with cognitive problems English Premier League soccer players, NHL hockey players, France’s Top 14 club rugby players, and even elite amateur athletes have better developed cognitive functions than the average university student, according to a perception study undertaken by Professor Jocelyn Faubert of the University of Montreal’s School of Optometry.
The study demonstrates a possible outcome of the increased cortical thickness that has been found in areas of trained athletes’ brains. It also offers researchers new avenues for exploring the treatment of people who have issues with attention, such as the elderly. “Study participants were asked to describe a series of simulated objects moving through three dimensions. Although the context had nothing to do with any specific sport, we found that professional athletes were able to process the visual scenes much better than amateur athletes who were in turn better than the students,” Faubert explained in the January 31, 2013 press release, “Jocks beat bookworms on brain test .”
The cognitive requirements for correctly interpreting the abstract moving scenes parallel situations such as driving, crossing the street or, case in point, performing sport. “It would appear that athletes are able to hyper-focus their attention to enhance learning, which is key to their abilities.” The researcher worked with 102 professional players from the groups mentioned above, 173 elite amateur athletes – who were recruited from the NCAA American university sports program and a European Olympic training centre, and 33 non-athlete university students.
Visual perceptual and cognitive abilities when viewing complex scenes were measured
Participants undertook the “3D-MOT” task fifteen times to evaluate several skills that scientists believe are critical to visual perceptual and cognitive abilities when viewing complex scenes: distribution of attention between a number of moving targets amongst distracters, large field of vision, maximum speed of objects that one is able to follow, and the ability to perceive depth.
The scene is “neutral”, meaning that sport specific familiarity such as play knowledge or experience will not influence the score as the movements and interactions are totally random. The 3D-MOT task was in fact developed by Professor Faubert and can be evaluated by using a graphical simulation machine he invented, known as the Neurotracker, and it has been used by teams such as Manchester United and teams in the NFL and NHL.
The tests revealed that the professional athletes were able to learn how to track fast moving objects at a much superior rate than the other groups, although all three groups improved their score over the 15 training sessions. “Clearly, mental processing and learning skills are key to the excellent performance of the professional athletes. However, it is unclear whether this superior learning ability is unique to professional athletes, and moreover whether these are innate skills that led them to be selected by these teams, or whether these skills have been acquired through extensive training,” Faubert said in the news release “It will therefore be interesting to see how individuals of all athletic abilities improve their perception score as they train with this system.”
Athletes are “sports experts” who represent a population of people who have acquired expertise in training and competition. In the new research, scientists looked at the neuroanatomical changes following extensive training. Some researchers measure cortical thickness measurement in order to investigate the brain’s anatomical characteristics of professional athletes such as divers or other professional athletes who compete.
In one of the studies, “Increased Cortical Thickness in Sports Experts: A Comparison of Diving Players with the Controls,” researchers also looked at a comparison of the brain anatomical characteristics of the non-athlete group with those of the athlete group. That study revealed three regions with significantly increased cortical thickness in the athlete group.
These regions included the left superior temporal sulcus, the right orbitofrontal cortex and the right parahippocampal gyrus. In various studies, researchers found a significant positive correlation between the mean cortical thickness of the right parahippocampal gyrus and the training experience in the particular sport.
The question for researchers in one of the studies, is: Does the brain change indicate the effect of extensive training on diving players’ brain structure? Or in another study, for example, the latest research from the University of Montreal, “Professional athletes have extraordinary skills for rapidly learning complex and neutral dynamic visual scenes,” scientists found that their research “demonstrates that a distinguishing factor explaining the capacities of professional athletes is their ability to learn how to process complex dynamic visual scenes.” This gives researchers a new insight as to what is so special about the elite athletes’ mental abilities, which allows them to express great prowess in action.
For the University of Montreal study, a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada discovery grant supported the research. Professor Jocelyn Faubert is director of the Visual Psychophysics and Perception Laboratory at the University of Montreal. He is also Chief Science Officer of CogniSens Athletics Inc., who produces the commercial version of the 3D-MOT used in this study. In this capacity, he holds shares in the company. The University of Montreal is officially known as Université de Montréal.