How Will You Stack Up When The Chips Are Down?

When we are pushing ourselves hard, our oxygen demand gets high, we get out of breath and we (most of us) stop to catch our breath before returning to the competition, battle or whatever the devilish physiologists are throwing at us this time.

Top class athletes, apart from being better at their sport than the rest of us, will push themselves harder. It is the old saw about when the going gets tough, the tough get going, supposedly. So what is it about their brain activity that gives them that edge?

Paulus et al have made a start at sorting this out in a recent experimental study (1). Their lab rats consisted of 10 world class adventure racers who combine orienteering with severe cross country running at the elite level. Both men and women were selected and their average age was 37.5. A similar size, mixed gender control group were selected from healthy individuals with an average age of 36.6.

The participants lay with their head in the big magnet for fMRI studies while their breathing was restricted. They had to breath through a hose with sintered bronze filters. This would put a similar mental load as extreme exercise, without the pain in the legs, of course. However, to challenge the brain/body coordination, the participants had to play a computer game of pressing a button in repose to things happening on a screen.

The result of all the hard work is that the right insula of the elite athletes activity was less than with the control subjects. The significance is that effects of emotions like fear and awareness of risk were lower, or suppressed with the elite athletes.

We use this side of the brain for approximate estimations and working on novel situations. It appears that attenuation of the activity might mean less imagination, and thus not imagining the bad results of pushing oneself to the limits. My imagination encourages me to stop for a cup of tea and sympathy when things get too hard and, I suspect, I'm in the majority.


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