Archive for January, 2018

The mind and brain of the athlete

January 2, 2018

I am afraid that I did not post much on this site in 2017.

In part that was because of several health problems. One of these was a puzzling connective tissue disorder that remains a puzzle, but is now largely in remission.  Separate from that problem, I had been developing cataracts in both eyes over a period of several years. The problems from glare had reached a point where something needed to be done.  Last winter, when cycling home from work after dark, I was forced to find a homeward route on traffic- free minor roads to avoid potentially lethal dazzling by the lights of oncoming traffic on the main roads. On one occasion I cycled at speed into a 3 foot high barrier. Fortunately the outcome on that occasion was more comical than serious.  But it was a definite indication that it was time for surgery.   The operations went reasonably smoothly, though some minor complications caused temporary concern.  But now these minor problems have settled and I am enjoying a very pleasing improvement in my vision.  This winter I can cycle home from work after dark on my usual home-wards route without problems.

However health issues were only part of the reason for lack of blogging in 2017.  I had a busy and exciting year at work.  This was satisfying but unfortunately left little time for running and for blogging.  This year promises to be similarly busy at work and I hope will be similarly exciting.  Nonetheless, I am gradually re-building my running activities, and it is time to get back to regular blogging.  In this blog I want to set the scene for a series of posts about the mind and brain of the athlete.

I am a clinical academic.  My research is concerned with the function of the human mind and brain, and the mechanism and treatment of mental disorders.  In the 27 years since US President George (HW) Bush declared the Nineteen Nineties to be the decade of the brain, we have not achieved any triumphs as spectacular as landing a man on the moon, but we have nonetheless learned an incredible amount about how the brain works.   We have learned that simplistic answers based on assigning a particular function to one brain region, or to one brain chemical, fail to deal with the complexity of a brain containing 100 billion neurons with over a trillion connections between them.    We have learned instead about the mechanisms that sculpt the extensive networks of brain cells that support mental activity, perception and behaviour; we have discovered that even the adult human brain is remarkably plastic.

We have learned some useful principles that explain how various experiences, including social interactions,  and ‘life-style’ factors, such as exercise and diet impact in understandable way on how our brains work; and we have learned much about how mind and brain can influence the function of the entire body. Nonetheless, the unimaginable complexity of the web of interactions between our genes and our experiences in life ensures that each of us is unique.  In applying what we have learned about the principles of mind/brain/body interactions to ourselves as individuals, we are each an experiment with a sample size of one.

We should therefore avoid simplistic application of lessons based on the experiences of a single individual to ourselves, and be cautious in drawing general conclusions from studies of a small number of individuals.  We should be even more cautious in following a guru whose principles are based on mystical interpretation of idiosyncratic evidence, though paradoxically the role of faith in recovery from illness (where is known as the placebo effect) and in athletic performance (where it can take the form of trust in your coach) cannot be denied.  Understanding the mechanism by which faith can move mountains (or more prosaically, by which confidence breeds success) is indeed one of the most intriguing challenges for modern neuroscience. I hope to return to that question in a later blog.

But just as we need to exercise caution in drawing general conclusions from the experiences of a few individuals, we also need to be aware of the limitations of drawing conclusions from studies of very large numbers of individuals. In large studies, averaging across individuals irons out the wrinkles due to the idiosyncratic behaviour of an individual.  We can have some confidence in drawing general conclusions about how the average person will respond in a particular situation.  However, we cannot confidently apply those conclusions to ourselves: we might prove to be the idiosyncratic individual.

Thus, in dealing with things as complex as the human mind and brain we must be very circumspect in the application of science to our own situation. We need to combine evidence from detailed observation of individuals and from measurement of the average behaviour of large groups, with knowledge based on understanding the underlying mechanisms.  There is a rapidly growing body of evidence about the mechanisms of the two way interaction between brain and athletic activities: the role of the brain in athletic performance on the one hand, and the role of exercise in enhancing the function of the brain on the other.


Brain networks engaged during running: upper left: dorsal attention network; upper right: executive control network, lower left: affect-rewards network;

There is a lot to write about, and I need to get my ideas organized – but to celebrate the beginning of what promises to be an exciting new year, I will get the ball rolling by pointing to an article that will be published next week in the journal Neuropsychologia (though it has been available on-line since Nov 2017).

In this paper Ashna Samani and Mathew Heath from the School of Kinesiology and Graduate Program in Neuroscience at University of Western Ontario report that in a group of healthy young adults, a single 10 minute bout of moderate-to-vigorous intensity cycling on a bicycle ergometer produced a 10%  decrease in reaction time during the anti-saccade trials in an anti-saccade task.  This might seem like a rather arcane laboratory finding of uncertain relevance to everyday like. The anti-saccade task requires looking to the left when an attention demanding visual stimulus suddenly appears in your right visual field, and conversely, looking to the right when the stimulus appears on the left.   This task in itself does not correspond closely to anything we are commonly required to do in everyday life.  However, in fact it is a rather good marker for the function of the brain circuit that acts to inhibit unwanted distractions that get in the way achieving our goals.  Attentional focus is indeed a pre-requisite for effective performance in many domains of every-day activity.  At some point in the future, I will return to the specific role of this inhibitory control circuit within the larger topic of the brain control mechanisms that govern athletic performance, though there are many other topics to cover before then.  I am looking forward to getting started in a more organised manner soon.