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Athleticism Narrows the Cognitive Gap Between Men and Women

Update Date: Mar 19, 2013 02:11 PM EDT

Who says you can't have brawn and brains? New research suggests that world-class athletes may be better than the rest of us in more ways in yet another way: cognitive ability. Surprisingly, researchers also found that  being an athlete minimizes cogntive differences that normally occur between men and women.

In a study of 87 top-ranked Brazilian volleyball players, researchers found that these athletes excel not only in their sport of choice but also in how fast their brains take in and respond to new information on and off the court.

The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, found that athletes were significantly faster at memory tests and activities that required them switch between tasks.  Athletes were quicker at detecting things in their peripheral vision and noticing subtle changes in a scene.  Researchers said that in general, athletes were significantly better at accomplishing tasks while ignoring confusing or irrelevant information.

"I think we have learned that athletes are different from us in some ways," University of Illinois psychology professor lead author Arthur Kramer said in a statement. "We found that athletes were generally able to inhibit behavior, to stop quickly when they had to, which is very important in sport and in daily life."

"They were also able to activate, to pick up information from a glance and to switch between tasks more quickly than nonathletes. I would say these were modest differences, but they were interesting differences nonetheless," he explained.

Interestingly, researchers found that female athletes had significant cognitive advantage over their nonathletic counterparts. Researchers said that being an athlete minimizes the subtle speed differences normally seen between women and men.  Researcher explained that female athletes were more like their male peers in the speed of their mental calcifications and reaction times, while nonathletic females performed the same tasks more slowly than their male counterparts.

The study found that female athletes were faster than nonathletic females at detecting changes in a scene and could more quickly pick out relevant details from a distracting background.  Researchers said that their performance on these cognitive tasks was on par with male athletes whereas nonathletic males consistently outperformed nonathletic females.

However, researchers noted that nonathletes did excel at one of the cognitive tests.  Participants in the experiment were asked to perform a stopping task.  They were asked to type a "Z" or "/" key as soon as they saw it on a computer screen unless they hears a tone shortly after the character appeared on the screen.  If they heard a tone, they were asked to refrain from responding. Researchers found that nonathletes generally performed faster in cases where the tone never sounded, while athletes were better at inhibiting their responses after hearing a tone.

Researchers explained that the brain's ability to inhibit response is an example of "executive function" at work.  The brain's executive function is responsible for controlling, planning and regulating a person's behavior.  While possessing better executive function has obvious advantages in sport, researchers note that the ability to quickly inhibit an action is also useful in daily life. 

"One way to think about it is you're in your car and you're ready to start off at a light and you catch in your side vision a car or a bicyclist that you didn't see a second ago," Kramer explained, adding that being able to successfully stop after having decided to go can be a lifesaver in that situation.  "So both facilitating and inhibiting behavior is important," he said.

The findings suggest that the athletes' slower performance on the stopping task might be the result of a strategic decision they had made to wait and see if the tone sounded before they pressed the key.

The latest study supports previous research on practice and training.  Past studies found that people who spend years training on specific physical tasks tend to also have enhanced cognitive abilities.

"Our understanding is imperfect because we don't know whether these abilities in the athletes were 'born' or 'made,' " Kramer explained. "Perhaps people gravitate to these sports because they're good at both. Or perhaps it's the training that enhances their cognitive abilities as well as their physical ones. My intuition is that it's a little bit of both." 

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