It wasn’t your typical American Museum of Natural History crowd: yesterday evening, a handful of kids and the standard science nerds were joined in the Hall of Ocean Life by ping pong aficionados.
Five ping pong tables—courtesy of co-host SPiN ping pong club—were set up in the hall for the event, “This is Your Brain on Ping Pong.” The evening included time for guests to practice the sport, as well as a panel discussion moderated by museum icthyologist Melanie Stiassny.
The evening’s attempts to connect ping pong and science were, well, a little weak. Stiassny ran through a brief history of life on Earth, with references to the sport dotting her speech like product placements: 500 million years ago the first organisms with nervous systems are on the scene—hey, you need a spinal cord to control a ping pong paddle! “Clearly evolution has a purpose, and that purpose is ping pong,” said Stiassny.
One panelist was legendary actress Susan Sarandon, perhaps most beloved for her role as Janet in Rocky Horror; she’s also an investor in SPiN. Why does she think SPiN is so popular? Sarandon claimed that it’s all about the romance: “You play it facing someone, maybe your date,” she said. “I see some people nodding, people here on dates.”
The neurobiologist on the panel, Wendy Suzuki, asked the crowd to part around the ping pong table in the center of the room, as a champion and a rather talented 10-year-old boy started a game. They stood several feet away from their respective sides of the table, and the ball flew through a much broader area than the rectangle of space used by amateur players.
“Notice their amazing skill set,” commentated the neurobiologist.
Suzuki admitted that there have been no studies published to date which specifically look at brains with respect to ping pong—”We should get some test subjects to volunteer tonight” whispered the Stiassny to Sarandon—but she outlined a few facts regarding brains and sports in general:
1) The primary motor cortex, a strip in the middle of the upper brain, and the cerebellum, a region at the lower back, are important for motor skills. Practiced ping-pong players likely have more synapses in these regions than the average individual.
2) The prefrontal cortex in the front of the brain is responsible for strategy.
3) Playing any aerobic sport leads to enhanced neurogenesis: that’s the birth of new neurons, and there is some evidence that it’s good for memory function and learning.
An audience member asked a question: What makes ping pong so addictive?
“Doing anything that you find rewarding activates a very powerful reward system,” Suzuki said, making a cycle motion with her hands. “The same way with drugs, like cocaine.”
The moderator interjected: “I’m going to have to cut this off, cause people wanna play the frigging game.” And that was the end of the science.
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Image: Shannon Palus