The Athletic Brain

By Carl Zimmer | April 16, 2010 11:57 am

In the April issue of Discover, I take a look at the mind of the athlete. We may think of sports as a matter of muscle, but the brain is vital as well. And in becoming great athletes, people develop unusual brains. This transformation only makes sense–any intense training can change the brain, whether it’s practicing the piano or learning Mandarin. But for some reason, the idea that being a great athlete is, in part, a cerebral exercise still comes as a surprise. In fact, according to this ESPN take on my column, it’s downright disappointing.

[Image: Wikipedia]

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Brains, Writing Elsewhere

Comments (3)

  1. I think the entire “stupid athlete, smart nerd” stereotype is at heart just a coping mechanism for people jealous of the more physically gifted. It makes us feel better to say, “yeah, he has the brawn, but I have the brains!” And it’s become such an insidious hallmark of our culture and our entertainment (princess bride anyone?) that the very belief that one cannot possess both seems to defy common sense.

    Forget for a moment that statistically, athletes have higher GPA’s than non-athletes or that intelligent people are often the most socially well adjusted or that the grand majority of college graduates boast prior (or current) involvement in sports; this stereotype is just something we want to believe because it makes the world seem fair. And if the pervasiveness of religion teaches us anything, it’s that we, as a species and as individuals, just love us some fair.

  2. JMW

    Just a couple of observations…

    I think the ESPN column is more-or-less tongue in cheek.

    I have spent several year quarterbacking a touch football team. I can still clearly remember plays from 15 years ago, and I think the thing that makes these plays stand out is the fact that I had to make decisions very quickly.

    Let’s face it. Decision making, like most other things, is a skill. Athletes have to make lots of decisions very quickly, so they get more practice than most of us. Those who play well, will be those making the best decisions at the highest speed.

  3. Daniel J. Andrews

    Yeah, I read it as tongue-in-cheek too. I’ll have to read the Discover article next time I’m at the library, but I’m pretty sure I won’t be feeling intellectually insecure when I chat with athletes. :)


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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