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Watch Sports, Improve Your Brain

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Attention sports fans: It turns out the countless hours you have spent sitting on your couch watching games have not been a total waste after all. In a sense, you have been giving your brain a workout.

That’s the conclusion of Sian Beilock, associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago and lead author of the paper “Sports Experience Enhances the Neural Processing of Action Language,” just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Beilock and her colleagues scanned the brains of 12 professional or intercollegiate hockey players, eight fans of the sport and nine people who don’t know a puck from a Zamboni.  They listened to two sets of sentences. One referred to hockey-specific actions such as making saves; the other focused on everyday activities such as ringing doorbells. They then performed tests designed to gauge their comprehension of what they just heard.

The findings: When hockey players and fans listened to language about hockey, there was activity in the regions of their brain that are normally used to plan specific physical actions. This unexpected brain activity strengthened their comprehension of the concepts discussed.

“We show that non-language-related activities such as playing or watching a sport enhance one’s ability to understand language about the sport precisely because brain areas normally used to act (instead) become highly involved in language understanding,” Beilock said.

The finding, another piece of evidence pointing to the brain’s plasticity, could have larger implications for learning. It suggests that having an intense interest in a subject can, at least in some cases, give us access to additional areas of the brain, which allows us to discuss the topic in detailed, nuanced way.