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Brawny Athletes Beat Brainy Scholars in Cognitive Tests

Update Date: Jan 31, 2013 11:17 AM EST

The stereotype for athletes is that they are not intelligent - and similarly, that intelligent people are not athletes. Of course there are exceptions, but for the most part, we think of people as either brawny or brainy. Now, researchers have performed a test that has found that athletes perform better than scholars on certain cognitive tests. The finding could lead to improved treatment for elderly adults with cognitive disorders.

Researchers from the University of Montreal worked with 102 professional athletes obtained from the English Premier League, NHL hockey players and France's top 14 rugby players. They also worked with  173 elite amateur athletes who played for the NCAA in the American university system or who were involved with the European Olympic training center. Both sets of athletes were compared to 33 university students who were decidedly not athletes. All of the participants took a test 15 times that was intended to test cognitive and perceptual skills that scientists believe are important when processing visual scenes, like focusing, field of vision and depth perception.

The study revealed that athletes were able to track quickly moving objects more quickly than their scholarly peers could. However, all of the participants improved over the course of taking the 15 tests.

"Study participants were asked to describe a series of simulated objects moving through three dimensions. Although the context had nothing to do with any specific sport, we found that professional athletes were able to process the visual scenes much better than amateur athletes who were in turn better than the students," Professor Jocelyn Faubert explained in a statement. "It would appear that athletes are able to hyper-focus their attention to enhance learning, which is key to their abilities...Clearly, mental processing and learning skills are key to the excellent performance of the professional athletes. However, it is unclear whether this superior learning ability is unique to professional athletes, and moreover whether these are innate skills that led them to be selected by these teams, or whether these skills have been acquired through extensive training."

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