Posts Tagged ‘mental’

To clinch victory, shoot for the left side of the net

July 14th, 2011
Comments Off on To clinch victory, shoot for the left side of the net

Interesting press release about an upcoming study in Psychological Science. In an analysis of every World Cup penalty shoot-out from 1982 to 2010, researchers from the University of Amsterdam found that goalies tend to dive to the right when their team is down and the game is on the line. (In other situations, they were equally likely to go right or left.)

Many studies have found that people and animals that want something tend to go to the right. When dogs see their owners, they wag their tails more to the right; toads strike to the right when they’re going for prey; and humans are more likely to turn their heads to the right to smooch their sweeties…

In an experiment, the team found that people who are told to divide a line in half tend to aim a bit to the right when they are both thinking about a positive goal and under time pressure—just like the goalies.

So how will this affect strategy in the next World Cup? Now the goalies know about this innate tendency; but the shooters know that the goalies know; but the goalies know that the shooters know that the goalies know…

[Minor gripe: the press release doesn’t actually reveal what the split in the data was — i.e. 51:49? 70:30? And the paper itself isn’t yet available online. A rather crucial detail, I’d have thought.]

Athletes have superior street-crossing abilities

March 21st, 2011

How’s this for a compelling reason to take up sports, from the conclusions of a newly published University of Illinois study:

Compared to non-athletes, collegiate Division I athletes showed higher street crossing success rates, as reflected by fewer collisions with moving vehicles.

It’s actually an interesting study, though it’s hard not to snicker while reading it. Researchers assembled 18 D1 athletes from a variety of sports (baseball, XC, gymnastics, soccer, swimming, tennis, track, wrestling) and 18 non-athlete controls matched for age, gender, height, weight, GPA and video-game experience, then had them all try to successfully cross a busy street in a 3-D virtual environment, while walking on a manual self-paced treadmill. The results: athletes made it to the other side without getting splatted 72.05% of the time, while non-athletes only made it 55.04% of the time.

The purpose of the study was to find out whether sports training improves multitasking ability:

An ability to efficiently process information is said to improve multitasking performance. That is, if information passes through the bottleneck efficiently and quickly, more information can be processed in a shorter time frame and performance can be maximized.

The athletes also outperformed the non-athletes in a simple test of reaction time — that difference alone is enough to account for the difference in street-crossing success. Of course, there’s a glaring cause-and-effect question here, which the researchers acknowledge:

We speculate that athletes are faster multitaskers than non-athletes, but it is also possible that successful virtual reality street crossers with fast processing speed are more likely to excel at sports.

It’s by no means obvious to me which direction the arrow of causality runs here. I suspect it’s a bit of both. Interestingly, these researchers are also part of the group that has been publishing some very encouraging findings about the effects of aerobic exercise on the brain. Just last month, they published a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper showing that aerobic exercise increases the size of the hippocampus by 2% in older people, reversing the effects of 1-2 years of age-related decline. In this case, cause and effect were clear.

Bottom line: sports skills may help you cross the street successfully, but if you want to remember how to get home again, make sure you’re doing some aerobic exercise.


How evolution keeps you on the couch

March 19th, 2011

Mark Fenske, a neuroscientist at the University of Guelph, has an interesting article in the Globe and Mail about how evolutionary forces on our brains affect our motivation to exercise. His basic argument is that we’re wired to avoid wasting energy, since our ancestors needed to make sure they’d have enough energy to find food or flee from danger. And recent neuroimaging studies (he’s not specific about which studies, by whom, and under what conditions) offer some support for this idea:

When subjects were considering whether to perform a given action, neural activity within one part of the striatum, the putamen, was found to decrease with the amount of physical effort the action would require… By helping to produce an aversion to unnecessary physical activity, the striatum may be partly to blame for the growing number of couch potatoes in Western societies.

Seems fairly intuitive — it would be surprising if we hadn’t evolved some such mechanism. But does this mean we’re incapable of overcoming this barrier to exercise? Of course not:

A number of studies indicate that increasing the reward associated with an effortful action can lead to its being chosen over an easier option. And brain scans show that the size of such a reward is associated with activity in the nucleus accumbens, which is another part of the striatum linked to motivation.

Again, this is quite painfully obvious on an intuitive level, though it’s interesting that scientists are zeroing in on which specific parts of the brain are responsible for these drives. The real pay-off, and the reason I’m linking to the article, comes in Fenske’s conclusion. We can trick the brain and tip the balance in favour of exercise, he says, by reminding ourselves of the well-established mental and physical benefits of exercise:

[B]y learning and thinking about exercise-related rewards we can strategically increase the incentive value of physical activity. This may explain why being reminded of such benefits, and how I always feel better after running than before, is so effective at getting me out the door.

To some extent, that’s what this blog is all about! The more we learn about all the different ways exercise benefits us, the easier it is to get out the door.

(And there’s a postscript too: exercise leads to physical changes in parts of the basal ganglia related to cognitive control. So the more you exercise, the better you get at overcoming your ancient brain’s aversion to “needless” effort.)

Do sports superstitions really work?

October 19th, 2010

My column in today’s Globe and Mail is about sports superstitions — and in particular, about a great study by German researchers showing how well they work (e.g. handing someone a golf ball and telling them that it’s a “lucky ball” makes them hit 33% more putts). I wrote it while I was at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, which allowed me to ask athletes there about their superstitions, some of which appeared in this sidebar accompanying the story:

Athletic superstitions range from the simple to the ridiculous. Here are a few that were on display at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, which wrapped up last week:

David Mathie (lawn bowls): Always plays with the price tag on his right shoe.

Erin Marie Roth (lawn bowls): Carries a poker chip with her when playing internationally.
More related to this story

Catherine Dion (gymnastics): Always tightens her right grip before her left on the bars.

Then there are the major league superstitions:

Serena Williams (tennis): Doesn’t change socks during a tournament if she’s winning.

Bruce Gardiner (hockey): Dunked the blade of his stick in the Ottawa Senators locker-room toilet before games to end slumps.

Turk Wendell (baseball): Always chewed four pieces of black licorice while pitching, and brushed his teeth between each inning. Also never touched the baselines.

Jason Terry (basketball): Tries to sleep in a pair of uniform shorts belonging to next day’s opponents, wears five pairs of knee-high socks and eats chicken before every game.

Sources: Psychological Science 2010,

Training three times a day: it’s mental

October 4th, 2010
Comments Off on Training three times a day: it’s mental

It was a good day at the pool for Canadian swimmers today. More specifically, it was a very good day for swimmers who train with coach Randy Bennett at the Victoria Swim Academy in B.C. Not only did Ryan Cochrane pick up the country’s first gold, in the 400m free; clubmates Julia Wilkinson and Stefan Hirniak picked up bronzes in the 200m IM and the 200m butterfly, and two others from the same group swam in finals — all this on the first day of competition at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi.

So what’s the secret? Hard work, obviously — but not just of the physical kind. After the race, Hirniak talked about a five-week stint of three swim workouts a day over the summer, and how the benefits were as much mental as physical:

I don’t think I would have paid much attention to that kind of comment a few years ago. But the more I read about the latest research into the nature of fatigue and limits of human performance, the more inclined I am to think Hirniak is right on the money with what he says here.

On an unrelated note, I was chatting with one of the Swimming Canada officials about the sports science team they’ve brought with them to Delhi. It’s an impressive contingent, including a couple of physiotherapists, a couple of physiologists, and a couple of biomechanics experts who are filming every lap of every race and producing a rush analysis for the swimmers and coaches every evening. I’m hoping to have a chance to hang out with some of these guys over the next week and find out more about what they’re doing.

, ,

Is exercising with your iPod making you stupid?

August 25th, 2010

Just read an interesting article by Matt Richtel in the New York Times. The nut: Researchers believe that our brains need downtime in order properly assimilate new information and memories, but we now have so many devices to fill every moment with distraction and titillation that we may be compromising our ability to learn.

It’s 1 p.m. on a Thursday and Dianne Bates, 40, juggles three screens. She listens to a few songs on her iPod, then taps out a quick e-mail on her iPhone and turns her attention to the high-definition television. Just another day at the gym…

But scientists point to an unanticipated side effect: when people keep their brains busy with digital input, they are forfeiting downtime that could allow them to better learn and remember information, or come up with new ideas. Ms. Bates, for example, might be clearer-headed if she went for a run outside, away from her devices, research suggests.

This is a new wrinkle in a very familiar debate about the pros and cons of exercising with headphones or other electronic devices. I have to confess that, though I’ve read all the literature about how music can pump you up and so on, I’m in the shrinking minority that prefers their exercise unwired. And my reasons, on an intuitive level, fit with what Richtel describes in this article. My life is pretty hectic, and I’m bombarded by a constant stream of information and stimulus. Most of us are these days, I think. I’d love to say that, when I head out for a run, it gives me a chance to think in peace, to have those deep insights that require uninterrupted meditation. But really, I usually just space out. If these researchers are right, though, that period of mental blankness could play a key role in the epiphanies I have later on, since my brain has been busy consolidating and organizing information.

Of course, there’s a flip side. It’s undeniable that lots of people really like exercising with music and/or TV. And that’s got to be better than not exercising at all, as Richtel’s article also acknowledges:

Some researchers say that whatever downside there is to not resting the brain, it pales in comparison to the benefits technology can bring in motivating people to sweat.

“Exercise needs to be part of our lives in the sedentary world we’re immersed in. Anything that helps us move is beneficial,” said John J. Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and author of “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.”

But all things being equal, Mr. Ratey said, he would prefer to see people do their workouts away from their devices: “There is more bang for your buck doing it outside, for your mood and working memory.”

Caloric restriction extends your life, but may make you stupider

May 23rd, 2010

Okay, that’s not really a fair headline or a good summary of the research I’m describing (which is a neat study by researchers at Princeton, explained in an excellent and detailed press release). But I have to admit, I’m not always perfectly neutral — like everyone, I prefer to see some results more than others. And research into caloric restriction is a good example: there’s been plenty of evidence over the past few years of the age-defying benefits of starving yourself:

To date, caloric restriction has been observed to extend lifespan in every organism tested, including worms, mice and monkeys, [Princeton prof Coleen] Murphy said. While the reasons for this are still under investigation, scientists generally believe that the benefits of caloric restriction go well beyond preventing diseases associated with obesity, such as heart disease and diabetes, Murphy added. It appears that limiting food intake actually slows the aging process.

In general, I’m used to leafing through studies and press releases that give me a nice pat on the back. Aerobic exercise is good? Super, I do tons of it! Eating lots of fruits and vegetables is good? Fantastic, I do pretty well on that front. But caloric restriction? That’s the antithesis of everything I stand for, which is doing ridiculous amounts of exercise and consequently being able to eat more or less until I get bored with no ill effects — or at least, no ill effects that I knew of until the emergence of this idea that eating less slows down aging.

So you should read the press release for yourself, and judge its merits in an unbiased manner… but here’s what I took from it:

Young worms whose calories were restricted had normal short-term memories, but their long-term memories were severely impaired; the memories faded within 24 hours, as opposed to 40 hours in normal worms.

(40 hours in worm time corresponds to about 15 people years.)

Now, the study has a lot more to say. While caloric restriction impaired long-term memory, the (impaired) memory abilities didn’t decline as much with old age as they normally do. The study also investigates how insulin-signalling pathways affect longevity and cognitive function (this appears to operate independently of the calorie-restriction effects). So there’s a lot of on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand-that going on. But it’s the first sign I’ve seen that caloric restriction, even if it extends life, may have some significant downsides:

“The assumption in the field of longevity research has been that organisms able to live longer will function longer as well,” said [Murphy]. “It seems we need to revisit that.”


Two approaches to brain training

May 2nd, 2010
Comments Off on Two approaches to brain training

Two recent items related to what makes your brain work better. First, a study in Nature on the benefits of the current fad for “brain training”:

The largest trial to date of ‘brain-training’ computer games suggests that people who use the software to boost their mental skills are likely to be disappointed…

“There were absolutely no transfer effects” from the training tasks to more general tests of cognition, says Adrian Owen, a neuroscientist at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Cognition and Brian Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK, who led the study. “I think the expectation that practising a broad range of cognitive tasks to get yourself smarter is completely unsupported.”

One major criticism of the study is that the largest effects of brain training are anticipated in adults over 60, at which point mental sharpness may already be slipping. Also, the total training time in the study averaged just four hours, which may not be enough to offer any benefits.

With that in mind, it was interesting to see this interview with Barbara Strauch, who has just written a book on the “grown-up” brain:

Q. Is there anything you can do to keep your brain healthy and improve the deficits, like memory problems?

A. There’s a lot of hype in this field in terms of brain improvement. I did set out to find out what actually works and what we know. What we do with our bodies has a huge impact on our brains. Our brains are more like our hearts in that everything you do for your heart is thought to be equally as good or better for your brain. Exercise is the best studied thing you can do to your brain. It increases brain volume, produces new baby brain cells in grownup brains. Even when our muscles contract, it produces growth chemicals. Using your body can help your brain.

I’m all in favour of undertaking challenging cognitive tasks to stay sharp (and for fun) — but aerobic exercise is still the best thing you can do for your brain.

Why athletes can’t resist racing in practice

May 1st, 2010

I posted a few times last month about the sometimes irresistible urge to race in practice. In that context, I was interested to see a description of this study, published in PNAS last week by neuroscientists at Washington University in St. Louis:

Whether it’s for money, marbles or chalk, the brains of reward-driven people keep their game faces on, helping them win at every step of the way. Surprisingly, they win most often when there is no reward.

Basically, the researchers used fMRI scans to monitor the brains of people participating in word games with and without monetary rewards. They found that, once an association between activity and reward is established, the pattern of brain activity shifts to automatic mode so that the actual presence of the reward is irrelevant.

The research has important implications for understanding the nature of persistent motivation, how the brain creates such states, and why some people seem to be able to use motivation more effectively than others.

They suspect the mechanism has to do with dopamine:

“It would be like the dopamine neurons recognize a cup of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and tell the lateral PFC the right action strategy to get the reward — to grab a spoon and bring the ice cream to your mouth,” Braver says. “We think that the dopamine neurons fires to the cue rather than the reward itself, especially after the brain learns the relationship between the two. We’d like to explore that some more.”

So in an athletic context, maybe that means the cues surrounding a hard training session are sufficient to spark some of the same brain chemistry that takes over in a race with big rewards on the line, even though the practice doesn’t have any rewards of its own.

Thinking good (or bad) thoughts increases endurance

April 22nd, 2010

A new study from Harvard University suggests that it’s good to be a good guy, but better to be a bad guy:

Study participants who did good deeds — or even just imagined themselves helping others — were better able to perform a subsequent task of physical endurance. The research, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, shows a similar or even greater boost in physical strength following dastardly deeds.

The researcher,  a psychology grad student named Kurt Gray, calls the effect “moral transformation.” It suggests that we may have cause and effect backwards, he says: It’s not that people who do great things have incredible strength and willpower; instead, people who attempt great things gain strength and willpower by making the attempt.

So what does this mean for exercisers? Well, I haven’t been able to dig up a copy of the original paper, so I’m relying on a press release whose details are somewhat sketchy:

Gray’s findings are based on two studies. In the first, participants were given a dollar and told either to keep it or to donate it to charity; they were then asked to hold up a 5 lb. weight for as long as they could. Those who donated to charity could hold the weight up for almost 10 seconds longer, on average.

In a second study, participants held a weight while writing fictional stories of themselves either helping another, harming another, or doing something that had no impact on others. As before, those who thought about doing good were significantly stronger than those whose actions didn’t benefit other people.

But surprisingly, the would-be malefactors were even stronger than those who envisioned doing good deeds.

So it doesn’t sound like this will be a magic ticket to unlimited strength and endurance. Still, it might be worth keeping the power of mental imagery in mind next time you’re working out — you might combine the power of evil thoughts with the ergogenic effects of swearing for maximum effect.