The Semantic Spaces Of An Athlete's Brain

Playing different sports is rather redundant.  Think about the motor skills and objects of, say, hockey versus soccer.  Players on two teams try to keep control of the puck/ball and put it past the opposing keeper into the goal.  Tennis, badminton and volleyball share the concept of hitting an object over a net at an opponent.  Football and rugby both need to advance a ball across a goal line.  There are similar objects such as a ball, a goal and the field of play and movements like jumping and running.

An athlete’s brain needs to learn these shared concepts early on to be able to navigate the tactics and motor skills required for different sports. Now, neuroscientists may have discovered how our brains organize this overlapping information so we don’t need to relearn the basics of each new sport.
Think about when you started driving.  While you may have been taught in one particular car, you learned the more general concepts of driving and how to identify the common objects found in dozens of vehicles.  Within seconds of sitting in a different car, you can recognize the steering wheel, ignition switch, pedals, lights, not to mention the basic mechanical functions of making it move.
Neuroscience has traditionally explained this ability to recognize objects by localizing it only to the visual cortex, a specific area of the brain.  Now, neuroresearcher Alex Huth of the University of California – Berkeley and his team have discovered that these different categories of objects are actually represented over a larger overlapping space in the brain in the somatosensory and frontal cortices covering almost 20% of the brain.
From the same visual system modeling lab that brought us a mind-reading computer last year, Huth used a similar technique of watching the brains of five researcher volunteers while they watched two hours of movie trailers.  Using fMRI scanning, the roughly 30,000 locations, also known as voxels, in the cortex were recorded while seeing over 1,700 different categories of objects and actions from the clips.
By matching the electrical pattern in the subjects’ brains with the scenes they were watching, a “semantic space” map was created showing which areas of the brain were active when seeing certain objects or actions.  As seen in the image above, categories that light up the same pattern in the brain are colored the same.  For example, focus on the middle of this image and you’ll see a green section that identifies human actors, including athletes.  Each small leaf on each branch represents one of the 1,700 different object or action types, which is not an exhaustive list of things in our world but a good cross section.
“Our methods open a door that will quickly lead to a more complete and detailed understanding of how the brain is organized. Already, our online brain viewer appears to provide the most detailed look ever at the visual function and organization of a single human brain,” said Huth.
Indeed, that online brain viewer is a fascinating tool.  By choosing an object such as “athlete” or an action such as “kicking” on one side of the viewer, you can see the corresponding layout of brain topology that is used to visualize it.
“Using the semantic space as a visualization tool, we immediately saw that categories are represented in these incredibly intricate maps that cover much more of the brain than we expected,” Huth said.
The research is published in the journal Neuron.
By studying the semantic map, we can see the shared properties of athletic endeavours.  The athlete cluster includes “ballplayer”, “skater” and “climber.” Interestingly, a cluster called “move self”, (including actions such as reach, jump and grab), uses a separate brain network then a more general grouping called “move” (including actions of pull, drop and reach).  From a skill practice perspective, the idea of a concept neighborhood makes sense as other research has shown the transferability of movements and logic from one sport to another.
In case you were wondering, vehicles do have their own semantic group including everything from a moped to a pickup to a locomotive.

How Cristiano Ronaldo Sees The Ball

foto Cristiano Ronaldo
Last year, the Spanish newspaper Marca revealed the nicknames that Real Madrid players have given each other inside the Santiago Bernabéu locker room.  While some names poked fun at a player’s appearance (“Nemo” for Mesut Özil’s bulging eyes), superstar Cristiano Ronaldo was simply known as “la máquina”, Spanish for “the machine.”  With his humanoid robot physique and his superior speed and quickness, Ronaldo seems to be programmed for goal scoring.
Indeed, sponsor Castrol has developed a self-proclaimed documentary, “Ronaldo – Tested To The Limit”, to attempt to explain the Portuguese player’s body strength, mental ability, technique and skill.  The most interesting of the four segments, mental ability, helps us realize that without the command center of the brain, the machine-like body parts are useless.
While physical attributes such as strength, speed, agility and power are necessary for athletic greatness, sport skill begins with evaluating the playing environment, taking in cues and making decisions through sensory input and perception.  Vision supplies 80-90% of the information athletes use to plan their motor skill movement.

Surrounded by sports scientists and testing equipment at a Madrid soundstage, Ronaldo was asked to perform two experiments that showcase his visual perception skills of gaze control and spatial awareness.

First, his challenge was to keep the ball away from an opponent for at least 5 seconds in a 1v1 drill.  While his opponent was a former Division One player, Andy Ansah, there was no doubt Ronaldo would succeed in keeping possession.  The insight came from both players wearing eye tracker equipment that can later show the gaze or saccadic movements of their eyes.  Elite athletes have more sophisticated patterns of cues that they watch for and focus on to beat their opponents versus novice players that gaze at many focal points.
Professor Joan Vickers at the University of Calgary is best known for her pioneering work in athlete eye tracking and working with coaches and players to develop strategies and logic of what they should be looking at during competition.  For example, hockey or soccer goalies should focus on the shooter’s hips or body angle rather than the puck or ball.

Cristiano Ronaldo
Through the eye tracking video, Ronaldo’s opponent, Ansah, looked mostly at the ball and the feet but his eyes darted in a less defined pattern.  Ronaldo, on the other hand, clearly had a strategy of watching Ansah’s hips and space around Ansah that he could exploit.  His command of the ball at his feet allowed him to only occasionally check its position.  This superior spatial awareness allows great players to watch their opponent and react to the slightest hints of their next movement.thlete eye tracking and working with coaches and players to develop strategies and logic of what they should be looking at during competition.  For example, hockey or soccer goalies should focus on the shooter’s hips or body angle rather than the puck or ball.
Another aspect of visual perception in many sports is to track a moving object.  An outfielder racing to catch a fly ball, a tennis player returning a 100 mph serve, or a soccer striker taking a one-time shot of a well-crossed ball all require a sophisticated, yet mostly subconscious, skill to intercept the object’s path and act on it.
To show that most of this task is calculated in the brain rather than simply with the eyes, Ronaldo was asked to do something he is paid very well to do, finish off a crossed ball into the goal.  However, to make it more interesting, during the ball’s flight to Ronaldo, the lights were turned off inside the arena forcing the player to calculate the final flight trajectory of the ball and make contact with it in the dark.
Just as a baseball hitter only gets about ¼ of a second to decide to swing at a 90 mph pitch (and can rarely “see” the ball all the way across the plate), an athlete often relies on his brain to complete the 3D scenario and rapidly predict the path of the flying object.
Cristiano Ronaldo
As seen in the video, the first two crosses are “easily” finished off by Ronaldo when he is allowed to see about half the ball’s flight towards him.  The real expertise is shown when the room goes dark immediately after Ansah kicks the ball.  The only cues available to Ronaldo are angles and movement of Ansah’s hips and legs to predict where the ball will end up.  Not only did he meet the ball but added a bit of Portuguese style by using his shoulder to finish the goal.
There has been some debate over the years on how exactly humans track moving objects.  Several studies and theories have looked at the movement of baseball outfielders as they follow a fly ball off the bat.  The late Seville Chapman, a physicist at Stanford, developed the Optical Acceleration Cancellation (OAC) theory that argues a fielder must keep moving to keep the rising ball at a certain angle to him. If he moves forward too much, the ball will rise too fast and land behind him.  If he mistakenly moves backward, the ball’s angular flight will drop below 45 degrees and land in front of him.  By keeping a constant angle to the ball through its flight, the fielder will end up where the ball does.
Subconsciously, Ronaldo may be using the OAC theory to start moving towards the ball based on its early trajectory, then computes the rest of the flight in the dark.  The advanced skill of predicting the path of the ball instantly after the kick puts Ronaldo into a world class category.

Practice Really Does Change An Athlete's Brain

speed skaters
As kids, once we have mastered the complex motor skill of riding a bicycle, we’re told that its a lifelong skill that we’ll never forget.  Getting all of the moving parts of human and machine in sync with each other becomes a collective memory that can be called on from age 6 to 60.

Which is surprising, knowing that names, numbers and recent locations of car keys can be so easily forgotten.  What makes motor skills stick in our brains, ready to be called on at anytime?  According to two teams of cognitive science researchers, we can thank a property called neuroplasticity which actually changes the structure of our brain as we learn.

Much like bike riding, mastering ice skating requires some advanced balance and coordination to stay upright.  Knowing when and how much to lean to one side or the other while arms and legs are swinging is the type of parallel processing computation that human brains can handle well.Tucked underneath the larger cerebral hemispheres in the brain, the cerebellum is known to play an active role in controlling movement by taking in messages from the spinal cord, combined with signals from other parts of the brain, and coordinating the precision and timing of complex motor skills.  Damage to the cerebellum causes a lack of coordination, much like being under the influence causes someone to stagger and lose their balance.

Neuro researcher Im Joo Rhyu, from the Korea University College of Medicine, knew from prior studies that intensive motor skill training, such as juggling or basketball, resulted in physical changes in the brain as measured by functional magnetic resolution imaging (fMRI).  Now, he wanted to find out if the ability of the brain to adapt itself over time, known as neuroplasticiy, was sport-specific.  Given that the cerebellum has a right and a left hemisphere, would the physical growth in neural connections be symmetric on both sides?

His research team chose the perfect sport to investigate, speed skating.  Being able to chase opponents around a tight oval at high speeds on ice is a showcase for the cerebellum’s functions.  The key difference is that skaters always turn counterclockwise or left around the track.  Years and years of practice to perfect movement in one direction may show a growth pattern in the brain different from other sports, Rhyu hyphothesized.

So, he compared the fMRI brain scans of 16 male, professional, short-track speed skaters with the scans of 18 male, non-skaters who didn’t even exercise.  As predicted, in the experienced skaters, the right hemisphere of their cerebellums were larger than the left side.  Since the skaters only turn to the left, they spend much more time balanced on their right foot with short steps on their left.  Standing on your right foot activates the right side of the cerebellum.  In addition, learning a motor skill that requires constant visual monitoring and adjustments is also thought to occur mainly in the cerebellum’s right half.

The study appears, appropriately, in the December 2012 issue of The Cerebellum.

Size is not all that changes in the cerebellum after repeated training.  The increased network of neuron connections between brain cells also increases to the point of being noticeable on a different type of brain scan, known as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI).  Using this technology, a  research team examined experts in a different sport, karate.

“Most research on how the brain controls movement has been based on examining how diseases can impair motor skills,” said Dr Ed Roberts, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London, who led the study. “We took a different approach, by looking at what enables experts to perform better than novices in tests of physical skill.

They compared the punch strength of twelve karate fighters who had achieved black belt status and had an average of almost 14 years of experience with 12 control subjects who exercised regularly but had no karate training.  Karate punching is not simply a feat of raw muscular strength.  It is combination of speed and the coordination of wrist, shoulder and torso movement.

As expected, they found that the punch strength of the black belts was substantially greater than the novices.  But the DTI scan also showed something else very interesting.  The white matter of their cerebellums, which is made up of the tangled network of neuron connections carrying signals from one cell to another, was structurally different than in the beginner’s brains.

The results of the study are published in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

“The karate black belts were able to repeatedly coordinate their punching action with a level of coordination that novices can’t produce,” said Roberts.  “We think that ability might be related to fine tuning of neural connections in the cerebellum, allowing them to synchronise their arm and trunk movements very accurately.”

It is reassuring for athletes to know that all of those hours devoted to training their skills are actually reshaping and rebuilding their brain architecture.  And for us bike riders, we can understand how the skinned knees and bruised elbows we endured when the training wheels came off were worth the effort to program a skill that will last a lifetime.

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High School Athletes Think Differently

Liverpool soccerIt seems so easy sitting in the stands. Watching their high school athlete, parents are perplexed when bad decisions are made on the field, not to mention at home and school.

What seems so logical to coaches and fans, especially over the age of 30, is often lost on the adolescent brains of prep players. Do they just not care? Will it take even more practice and drills to get it right? Could it be teenagers are just wired differently? According to a social cognition expert, that’s exactly what’s happening.

Traditional child development theory takes us from birth to the beginning of the awkward years that are triggered by the physical changes of puberty. While research on teenagers has documented their increased risk-taking behavior, the complicated reasons why adolescents think differently are still being discovered.

"The idea that the brain is somehow fixed in early childhood, which was an idea that was very strongly believed up until fairly recently, is completely wrong,” claims Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, in a recent interview at “There's no evidence that the brain is somehow set and can't change after early childhood. In fact, it goes through this very large development throughout adolescence and right into the 20s and 30s.”

Blakemore’s lab at UCL has been studying what they call the “social brain” or how we learn to understand and interact with other people. What better place for improved connections with those around you than on the playing field? As a team battling against an opponent, players become connected and feed off of not only the tactical play of others but the emotional ups and downs of the game.

As an example, take a look at the photo above of Michael Owen, back in his Liverpool days, immediately after missing a wide open goal. Instantly, Owen (lying on the ground), his teammates and just about every fan dressed in red react with an eerily similar expression. Of course, the fans in yellow, supporting the visiting team, have a completely separate reaction. Blakemore used this example in a recent TED talk titled, “The Mysterious Workings of the Adolescent Brain.” This connectedness shows our ability to instantly read the emotions of others and how our social brains react to a situation. ”The picture shows us how instinctive and automatic social responses are,” explains Blakemore. “Within a split second, everyone is doing the same thing with their arms and faces.”

Specifically for teenagers, this social brain development can be seen in the physiological changes their brains go through during this period. Blakemore points to an ongoing study at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda where they have been performing fMRI brain scans on children, adolescents and adults over ten years. The same people return once a year for a new scan, resulting in over 8,000 scans from 2,000 people.

One of the surprising findings is that our brain’s gray matter, consisting of neuronal cell bodies, neuropil, glial cells and capillaries, grows rapidly through our childhood but then shrinks dramatically in our teen years right into our twenties. At the same time, our white matter, made up of the actual axon fiber connections between brain cells, has an offsetting increase. The white color comes from myelin, the insulating wrap around these fibers.

Through experiments in her own lab, Blakemore has identified specific brain regions that adults and teenagers use when they are thinking about other people, in other words, being social. What is surprising is that teens use more of their prefrontal cortex than adults, who use temporal regions on the sides of their brain. So, why the difference?  “That's something that we're looking at now,” responded Blakemore in the Edge interview. “One possibility is that they're using different cognitive strategies to do these tasks. They're doing the tasks, even though they're doing them as well, they're doing them in a different way. It's possible that at different ages you use different brain circuitry to perform the same task because you're using a different kind of cognitive strategy. You might, for example, when you think about social situations as an adult, you might be doing this automatically by just triggering automatically some kind of social script, whereas maybe in adolescence you're more reliant on your own experiences of these situations.”

The bottom line for coaches and parents; teenagers truly do think differently. They process social interactions with teammates and opponents on a different level than adults. There is no magic coaching philosophy or method guaranteed to succeed. However, the realization and acceptance that the teen athletic brain is evolving and growing is a start.

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