The human brain and central nervous system are remarkable. How they interpret and deal with the world through sensory systems is a deep and fascinating arena of science. But what’s perhaps more fascinating is how subtle variations in brain function can dramatically influence human performance from one person to another.
In 2009, a partnership with my laboratory and a technology transfer company provided the opportunity of sports science collaborations with world-class teams across different sports.
We all know that sports stars achieve incredible feats of skill and athleticism that seem beyond the reach of ordinary people. Most thinking on this focuses on their spectrum of physical abilities. However, as a neuroscientist, it always stood out to me that a primary differentiator at the elite levels is not necessarily physical prowess.
Brain Power and Elite Performance
Instead, it could be their very high bandwidth to process complex and dynamic scenes that change rapidly and unpredictably. This allows sports stars to be in the right place at the right time, avoid errors, and crucially, make the best decisions to act on. There has been growing evidence in the field of sports science to support this.
However, it took several years of studying elite athletes from a neuroscience perspective to discover what makes them particularly special. Differences in what I term ‘perceptual-cognitive’ abilities, could have potent implications for determining any individual’s capacity to adapt to new levels of performance.
Studying Elite Athletes
In a Nature Scientific Reports study I compared 102 elite athletes from NHL, EPL, and French Top 14 Rugby League, with 173 elite amateurs from NCAA and a European Olympic training program, and also 33 non-athlete university students.
All these participants performed a cognitive training intervention of 3D multiple object tracking exercise comprising 15 sessions (6-8mins each), completed over several weeks.
This neutral task has been established in the literature to produce typically high learning rates across different populations with this quantity of training. Most importantly, the task is technically very simple to attempt, and accordingly technique independent.
Meaning that when you improve at it, you improve at a perceptual-cognitive level, rather than from practice-related effects. This has been corroborated by qEEG measures of neurophysiological changes in the brain with training.
Breaking the Dumb Jock Stereotype
As the 3D multiple object tracking is known to elicit high-level cognitive functions, measured via speed of processing, two different aspects of cognitive function can be obtained. These are initial baseline (existing perceptual-cognitive ability), and learning rate (ability to adapt cognitively). The results from the three groups showed that elite professional athletes had, on average, significantly higher baselines than both elite amateurs and university students.
Even though the task is purely cognitive, and despite the ‘dumb jock’ stereotype of athletes, it wasn’t a surprise that these athletes performed better than the university students. This is because the type of intelligence the task involves is relevant to the cognitive skills athletes typically rely on at the highest levels of play.
Predicting Human Performance Potential
In terms of the what learning rate revealed, the general expectation was that if professional elites started off at a much higher level, then the elite amateurs and university students would catch up during the training program. Most surprisingly, the reverse happened. In terms of the learning curves, the elite athletes accelerated away from the amateur athletes, who in turn accelerated away from the university students.
The data revealed something profound about elite athletes: they appear to have a superior perceptual-cognitive capacity to improve and adapt to a new and neutral task. What’s more, the level of this capacity correlates strongly with level of sports ability, suggesting it is a useful predictor of both ability and learning potential in any domain of human performance.
Neuroscience for Military Leader Profiling
For military purposes, I can envision this kind of profiling being valuable in personnel recruitment and development strategies. For example, selecting potential leaders for rapid career development could be guided by measures of their learning capacity, as it could for assigning high value personnel such as fighter pilots.
This knowledge of the adaptability of one individual’s brain is from another is an emerging area of neuroscience, but it may well redefine the dichotomy of nature versus nurture, as well as our understanding of human performance.