Want a Quiet Mind? Move Your Body.
How physical activity can clear your head and improve your focus.
In sports and training, there's a lot of talk about how mindset can affect performance. But what if it works the other way too? What if physical activity changes the way your brain works, helping you stay focused and clearheaded in everyday life? That's what new research from the Brainvolts Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University suggests.
"Sound is a very, very powerful force in our lives, but it's under-recognised", says Nina Kraus, PhD, Founder and Director of Brainvolts Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University. Kraus has spent her entire career exploring how the brain processes sound. She's worked with people who suffered linguistic deprivation as children and seem to have trouble concentrating as a result. She's worked with musicians and bilinguals, whose ability to process sound is heightened. And now, in her lab's most recent study, she's turned her attention to a new group of subjects. "We wanted to know whether an elite athlete has any advantage when it comes to sound processing", she says.
To discover the answer, Kraus's lab worked with nearly 1,000 subjects, half of them Division I athletes (the highest competitive college sports level in the US), half of them ordinary US college students. The scientists measured the electrical response in the subjects' brains after hearing the syllable "da". The big finding? The athletes consistently showed lower levels of "background neural noise" than the non-athletes did.
"When the background noise is less, you're able to make better sense of the sounds around you".
Nina Kraus, PhD, Founder and Director of Brainvolts Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University
"Background neural noise" isn't real noise at all. For the athlete, it's not a crowd's roar, a nearby car alarm or a taunting opponent. "Think of it as radio static in your brain", says Kraus. "It's the constant neural activity that's happening without conscious attention. If there's too much, it will get in the way of processing the information that comes to you". This might, for instance, make it difficult to follow what someone is saying—and, in fact, Kraus's team has seen strong correlation between higher neural noise and academic difficulty. "It's a signal-to-noise ratio", she says. "When the background noise is less, you're able to make better sense of the sounds around you".
Kraus says the fact that these young athletes experience less of this mental static is good news. It could mean increased concentration and comprehension that will help them in any career. Though Kraus and her team still don't know why athletes experience less neural noise, they have two compelling theories.
The first: The athlete's brain might be adapting to specific training and the needs of the game. "An athlete has to be listening to signals", says Kraus. "They have to listen to the coach, the other players, the sound of their own equipment. An athlete needs to be very, very aware of everything going on around them. They need to know what to listen for and what to ignore". Kraus speculates that the athletes' brains might be somehow "turning down" their neural noise so they can hear what they need to on the field, a kind of evolutionary adaptation over the course of a lifetime.
And the other theory? "There are many, many studies that show that physical activity is good for your body and good for your brain", says Kraus. "We just know that in general. It's possible that one of the reasons we saw lower neural noise among these athletes is simply that they were in such good shape".
It's this second idea that could have wide-ranging implications for the everyday athlete. It would mean that every morning run, every living-room training session or casual basketball game could contribute to your ability to perceive the world more clearly.
In either case, this research is relevant to everyone, competitive athlete or not, says Kraus. "In trying to learn how physical activity affects the mind, we often get clues by studying the extreme cases", she says. "Often, these biological principles work on a continuum. This knowledge should encourage everyone to engage in basic, everyday physical activity". Though every little bit helps, it's likely that the more you do, the higher the clarity payoff.
Plus, Kraus points out, you may not need a team to get started. "The athletes that we tested, they do huge amounts of training on their own", she says. "We continue to uncover evidence supporting the fact that physical movement, however you can get it, is a tremendously positive activity for the body and mind".