Jocks beat bookworms on brain test

January 31, 2013, University of Montreal
Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks escapes the tackle of Kroy Biermann of the Atlanta Falcons during an NFC Divisional playoff Game at Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia on January 13, 2013. Professional athletes learn quicker than university students to unravel complex visual data, said a study Thursday that challenges the age-old brains-vs-brawn cliche.

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.

" 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 who were in turn better than the students," Faubert explained. 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. The participants undertook the "3D-MOT" task fifteen times to evaluate several skills that scientists believe are critical to visual perceptual and 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 , 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. "It will therefore be interesting to see how individuals of all athletic abilities improve their perception score as they train with this system."

The study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Explore further: Study finds head impacts in contact sports may reduce learning in college athletes

Related Stories

Study finds head impacts in contact sports may reduce learning in college athletes

May 16, 2012
A new study suggests that head impacts experienced during contact sports such as football and hockey may worsen some college athletes' ability to acquire new information. The research is published in the May 16, 2012, online ...

Strobe eyewear training may improve visual abilities

May 19, 2011
Strobe-like eyewear designed to train the vision of athletes may have positive effects in some cases, according to tests run by a team of Duke University psychologists who specialize in visual perception.

Former football players prone to late-life health problems, study finds

November 9, 2011
Football players experience repeated head trauma throughout their careers, which results in short and long-term effects to their cognitive function, physical and mental health. University of Missouri researchers are investigating ...

Kids who specialize in one sport may have higher injury risk

May 2, 2011
Competitive young athletes are under increasing pressure to play only one sport year round, but such specialization could increase the risk of injuries, a Loyola University Health System study has found.

Reverse inclusion and the question of disability

January 17, 2012
Wheelchair basketball: It's a fast, skillful game, dazzling to watch, gruelling to play. It's also a sport that in Canada has become one of the most inclusive, welcoming athletes with disability and able-bodied athletes alike ...

Recommended for you

Modulating molecules: Study shows oxytocin helps the brain to modulate social signals

January 17, 2018
Between sights, sounds, smells and other senses, the brain is flooded with stimuli on a moment-to-moment basis. How can it sort through the flood of information to decide what is important and what can be relegated to the ...

Reducing sessions of trauma-focused psychotherapy does not affect effectiveness

January 17, 2018
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) patients treated with as few as five sessions of trauma-focused psychotherapy find it equally effective as receiving 12 sessions.

How past intentions influence generosity toward the future

January 17, 2018
Over time, it really is the thought that counts – provided we know what that thought was, suggests new research from Duke University's Fuqua School of Business.

Baby brains help infants figure it out before they try it out

January 17, 2018
Babies often amaze their parents when they seemingly learn new skills overnight—how to walk, for example. But their brains were probably prepping for those tasks long before their first steps occurred, according to researchers.

Tracking the impact of early abuse and neglect

January 17, 2018
Children who experience abuse and neglect early in life are more likely to have problems in social relationships and underachieve academically as adults.

Study: No evidence to support link between violent video games and behaviour

January 16, 2018
Researchers at the University of York have found no evidence to support the theory that video games make players more violent.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jan 31, 2013
is this daily mail? did i accidentally got redirected?
a misleading, sensationalist title, a misrepresented study.
"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."
this study clearly tests something that athletes should be better than "average joe", either by training or earlier selection. while technically "cognitive",it's not one that "bookworms" need to care much about.
not rated yet Jan 31, 2013
You're right Neversaidit.
These skills will help you be a better wide receiver or goalie, but they won't help you understand calculus or appreciate Shakespeare.
1 / 5 (1) Jan 31, 2013
Yeah, that title would imply they sat them down with a series of differential equations to solve, or even just a standard IQ test. You mean to tell me the athletes performed better at a function that is a central pillar to their proper functioning in their job? You don't say...
not rated yet Jan 31, 2013
This test emphasizes kinetic and episodic memory. These functions are in the brainstem and midbrain. No higher brain function such as language, predication. metaphor or abstract thinking are required.

Were this a true intelligence test, FPS video games and chasing frisbees like a dog would be the epitome of genius
5 / 5 (2) Jan 31, 2013
The nerd doth protest too much, methinks.
5 / 5 (1) Feb 03, 2013
As a Nerd Speaking for the apposing team (counsel) I'd like to say. . .

This makes sense and seems valid. At some point in life developing eye hand coordination and tracking objects is critical in all child development. The ability to train and develop superior eye hand coordination and visual tracking might be a good indicator ability to visualize in general. It's no accident that professional memory magicians use an imaginary place or physical setting such as a house or even possibly a football field to remember many things correctly. So by that reasoning wouldn't this ability to hyperfocus also apply to general memory and learning crossover. It's kind of like the way playing chess is supposed to make one smarter.

Also, there's a selection bias to be aware of that anyone who makes it up to the ranks of the best performers in any area are going to be smart. It might be more fair to compare professional sports athletes with the top 1% of practicing scientists.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.