Friday, June 11, 2010

Soccer and the Human Brain by Jeff Holt

I am both a neuroscientist and a soccer fanatic. Though seemingly unrelated pursuits, my appreciation of neuroscience has strengthened my passion for soccer. Let me explain. Soccer in the United States, football to the rest of the world, is not just a game that involves putting a ball in a net. Soccer is a triumphant display of the incredible plasticity of the human brain. More than any other sport soccer requires a brilliance that redefines the cerebral cortex, because the soccer player is limited by one simple rule: no hands!

This one rule takes away eons of evolutionary advantage we humans have developed. Hands are what we do best. A peak inside the brain of the average human reveals that the hands are vastly over-represented relative to other regions of the body. There is no question that our achievements with the hands are remarkable. In the sporting world, the hand is a major advantage. Compare the size of the net or the difference in score between soccer and basketball. Hands do make a difference.

Yet, since soccer eliminates the use of hands and focuses on the feet, soccer emphasizes another powerful human capacity: the plasticity of the human brain and its ability to learn and be shaped by experience. The feet, the principle instruments of the game, are represented by a very small region of cortex in the average human brain. Remarkably, this feeble cortical representation is not set in stone; clay would be a better analogy because the brain can be molded by experience. In fact, the ability of the human brain to be remolded and learn from experience is so pervasive in humans that it may be our greatest evolutionary advantage.

The brain of a soccer player illustrates this point beautifully as it reshaped by extensive training and experience. Since the soccer player’s feet are both exquisitely sensitive and remarkably powerful and must be used as tools of the trade as well as for their usual purpose, the brain regions devoted to the feet undoubtedly expand to allow greater neural representation. It is not difficult to imagine that the brain of Lionel Andres Messi (left), perhaps currently the world’s greatest soccer player, may be very different from the average human with expanded representation for the feet.

A remolded cerebral cortex in the minds of the best soccer players is a testament to the incredible plasticity of the human brain and its ability to adapt and learn from new experiences. Every artful touch of the ball, exquisite pass, explosive burst of speed, and thundering shot on goal, begins in the cortex of evolution’s greatest achievement, the human brain. Its awesome power to learn and be reshaped by experience will be on display for a month this summer beginning today in South Africa at the Soccer World Cup. Check it out…you might learn something.

                       --- Jeff Holt is an Associate Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Virginia.

18 comments:

  1. No doubt!!!!!!!!!! Indeed, these points lend yet ANOTHER angle from which to be absolutely excited for the coming play. As Mr. Desmond Tutu said in yesterday's opening ceremonies.... (and I'm paraphrasing): "Welcome home, world. Welcome back to Africa!!!" Now let's go do what we humans do so well, if infrequently: enjoy the phenomenal gifts given us, each other's company and support, and the beautiful joy of plain and simple LIFE!!! (Gooooooooo...Africa!)

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  2. Jeff,

    I just listened to your essay on the WMRA blog. I loved it. When I lived in South Africa for a couple of years, I noticed that when you would throw a ball (or anything) at an African youth, their fist reaction was to "catch" it with their feet, not their hands, which would be the predominant reaction for American children.

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  3. People suggest this also occurs for musicians!

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  4. People suggest this also occurs in professional musicians.

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  5. Jeff, after watching the finesse and precise foot skill and touch of Lionel Messi as he receives the ball with a soft touch then weaves his way around a triplet of mammoth defenders, I have no doubt you are right about enhanced "foot representation" in his brain. In addition, I would guess that the split-second decision making of a playmaker like Xavi might indicate well-tuned, lightening fast motor planning areas as well! Very cool piece. I enjoyed it!

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  6. Hey Jeff,
    I enjoyed your NPR spacial at 7:30 this morning. It was lay audience friendly, and I loved the analogy of the size of the
    basket ball net versus the soccer goal. On a friendlier note, Go Argentina Go!!!
    avin

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  7. Hi Jeff - Pardon the double entrende, but I
    enjoyed your very cerebral view (from the top, as it were). I'm glad to learn that the apparatus on the top of our heads is not just for heading balls...DNH

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  8. Loved your essay! It is quite an interesting way to think about it. I wonder if there are great soccer players who also possess great hand skills; Are there any fine artist playing in leading soccer teams around the world? I guess they would have little time left to practice anything else than soccer... Anyone knows? Gwen

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  9. are there brain exercises that might also improve one's soccer game? crossword puzzles perhaps?
    --ellen

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  10. Loved this story! Messi's foot work yesterday in the Argentina v. Nigeria match was Brilliant!

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  11. There was one element that the good neuroscientist left out, and that is the damage done to soccer players' brains by heading the ball, crashing head to head, etc. The NFL is finally serious about addressing the problem of concussion. How long will it take FIFA?

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  12. @ Gwen: Cortical plasticity does not just apply to the regions that represent the foot, but the entire cortex. Any task that is repeated regularly can remold the cortex: artwork, dance, etc...

    @Ellen: There are certainly excercises that can improve one's soccer game. Regular repetition of any movement that is soccer specific could help. I recall the scene from the Karate Kid Movie: Wax on, wax off. Same idea. Mr. Miyagi got it right!

    @Mike: I share your feelings, blunt head trama is a concern.

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  13. re: Mike Ballard's concern - I don't know HOW much lighter these new balls are.... but is this a (small) step? or atleast a little more justification for their use?

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  14. This is a great essay. I run the Epilepsy Foundation of Virginia's Twitter page, and I RT it from uvahealthnews for our followers. I think everyone will get a kick out of it! No pun intended.

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  15. boy. FIFA and their refs need their cerebral cortices redefined.

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  16. Jeff, the italians were a terrible disappointment – now that you told me about the brain and soccer, I am quite worried about the future of italy…

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  18. Hi, thanks for this very informative article. I like it. =)
    Cheers from t shirt printing company.

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