Athletes’ Brains are Quieter

The brains of athletes turn down extraneous noise to highlight more important sounds.

Athletes’ brains truly are quieter, according to a new study of elite collegiate athletes and how they process sound. The study finds that the brains of athletes dial down extraneous noise to highlight important sounds better than those of other people.

Playing sports has many benefits, including boosting physical, cardiovascular, and mental fitness. We tested whether athletic benefits extend to sensory processing-specifically auditory processing-as measured by the frequency-following response (FFR), a scalp-recorded electrophysiological potential that captures neural activity predominately from the auditory midbrain to complex sounds.

Results:

Athletes have larger responses to sound than nonathletes, driven by a reduction in their level of background neural noise.

Author’s conclusions:

These findings suggest that playing sports increases the gain of an auditory signal by turning down the background noise. This mode of enhancement may be tied to the overall fitness level of athletes and/or the heightened need of an athlete to engage with and respond to auditory stimuli during competition.

Pretty interesting stuff. Sound processing is a specific skill that may help in a variety of sports (and could be a part of training), but that does not necessarily mean that there is any connection between the physical exercise involved in sports and sound processing. I would be interested in seeing the sound processing capabilities of endurance competitors to see if the effect carries over. I’ve always found a general stillness and quiet when out riding, but maybe it’s all in my head.

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