Friday, June 11, 2010
Soccer and the Human Brain by Jeff Holt
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.
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.