Discover Magazine’s recent article “The Brain Why Athletes Are Geniuses” reinforces what I’ve heard before: great athletes are body geniuses. “Even a sport as seemingly straightforward as pistol shooting is surprisingly complex,” author Carl Zimmer declaims. “A marksman just points his weapon and fires, and yet each shot calls for many rapid decisions, such as how much to bend the elbow and how tightly to contract the shoulder muscles. Since the shooter doesn’t have perfect control over his body, a slight wobble in one part of the arm may require many quick adjustments in other parts. Each time he raises his gun, he has to make a new calculation of what movements are required for an accurate shot, combining previous experience with whatever variations he is experiencing at the moment.” OK, I’m intimidated.
Del Percio’s team has also measured brain waves of athletes and nonathletes in action. In one experiment the researchers observed pistol shooters as they fired 120 times. In another experiment Del Percio had fencers balance on one foot. In both cases the scientists arrived at the same surprising results: The athletes’ brains were quieter, which means they devoted less brain activity to these motor tasks than nonathletes did. The reason, Del Percio argues, is that the brains of athletes are more efficient, so they produce the desired result with the help of fewer neurons. Del Percio’s research suggests that the more efficient a brain, the better job it does in sports. The scientists also found that when the pistol shooters hit their target, their brains tended to be quieter than when they missed.
Good genes may account for some of the differences in ability, but even the most genetically well-endowed prodigy clearly needs practice—lots of it—to develop the brain of an athlete. As soon as someone starts to practice a new sport, his brain begins to change, and the changes continue for years. Scientists at the University of Regensburg in Germany documented the process by scanning people as they learned how to juggle. After a week, the jugglers were already developing extra gray matter in some brain areas. Their brains continued to change for months, the scientists found.
So watching Pale Rider again and again won’t make me a better shot?