Your brain on sports

Posted on March 24, 2011

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Does playing sports make you smarter? Or is it just that smart people play (and excel at) sports?

The studies referred to in a New York Times blog post today won’t settle that debate. But they do highlight ways in which the jock’s brain seems to be smarter and faster than the nerd’s. The main study, by researchers from the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, was published in the official journal of the American College of Sports Medicine. Here’s the complete abstract from the paper:

Purpose: Cognitive enhancements are associated with sport training. We extended the sport-cognition literature by using a realistic street crossing task to examine the multitasking and processing speed abilities of collegiate athletes and non-athletes.

Methods: Pedestrians navigated trafficked roads by walking on a treadmill in a virtual world, a challenge that requires the quick and simultaneous processing of multiple streams of information.

Results: Athletes had higher street crossing success rates than non-athletes, as reflected by fewer collisions with moving vehicles. Athletes also showed faster processing speed on a computer-based test of simple reaction time, and shorter reaction times were associated with higher street crossing success rates.

Conclusions: The results suggest that participation in athletics relates to superior street crossing multitask abilities and that athlete and non-athlete differences in processing speed may underlie this difference. We suggest that cognitive skills trained in sport may transfer to performance on everyday fast-paced multitasking abilities.

The study seems to show a clear positive correlation between being a fairly elite athlete and having some superior cognitive processing skills. They “suggest” that these skills get enhanced by athletic training. But it is of course entirely possible that athletes can only succeed at that advanced level (D1 college teams) because they have those cognitive abilities already. In other words, we don’t know whether sports made them smarter, or whether they had to be smarter in order to compete at that level.

The difference matters for educational institutions. If playing sports makes you smarter in these ways (let alone better able to cross a street without getting killed), then we have another reason to fund more physical education. (You know, in addition to wanting to do something about child-obesity epidemic.)

These kinds of studies are further evidence of how outdated “folk” theories of intelligence-as-logical-reasoning are. The NFL still tests prospective quarterbacks’ “intelligence” with the Wonderlic test, which is essentially a 12-minute old-school IQ test. We now have abundant evidence that much brain processing and intelligence doesn’t even take place in the part of the brain responsible for this kind of rational problem-solving. (See, for example, the excellent popular science book by Jonah Lehrer, How We Decide.) This new study seems to be adding to that pile of evidence against the nerd-biased folk theory of what it means to be intelligent.

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Posted in: cognitive bias