Playing and watching sports are good for your brain

Roger Federer at Wimbledon, 2005Image via Wikipedia

Now of course most of you know that playing sports is good for you because it is exercise, but most of you probably wouldn’t have guessed watching sports can also be good for your brain.

Is watching sports a brain hack – to improve language ability?

Two of my friends, Jaimie Borisoff and Pat Anderson play a lot of sports, but also watch a good deal of sports. Yesterday (September 16th), playing for Canada they won a silver medal in wheelchair basketball at the Paralympics Games (this to add to their two gold medals from 2000 and 2004 games). I am sure they get some hassle from their significant others (though the ever eligible bachelor Pat is currently single – I think, hard to keep track of him) about how much sports they watch on TV. The high consumption of TV sports is a constant complaint from many spouses to the point it is a joke during the football season in America about them being ‘football widows’.

What a waste of time many (especially the significant others) would argue, watching of bunch of grown men run around and play a game.

In a recent PNAS paper (via esciencenews) titled, “Sports Experience Enhances the Neural Processing of Action Language” the scientist found that playing or even watching a sport enhanced language understanding – related to that sport or activity. (also covered here very nicely)

For the study, researchers asked 12 professional and intercollegiate hockey players, eight fans and nine individuals who had never watched a game to listen to sentences about hockey players, such as shooting, making saves and being engaged in the game. They also listened to sentences about everyday activities, such as ringing doorbells and pushing brooms across the floor. While the subjects listened to the sentences, their brains were scanned using functioning Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which allows one to infer the areas of the brain most active during language listening.

After hearing the sentences in the fMRI scanner, subjects performed a battery of tests designed to gauge their comprehension of those sentences.

Although most subjects understood the language about everyday activities, hockey players and fans were substantially better than novices at understanding hockey-related language.

Now one might say it only makes sense that the hockey fans would recognize more hockey specific words such as shooting and saves. But really those words are very commonly used in our general language (in different contexts).

Brain imaging revealed that when hockey players and fans listen to language about hockey, they show activity in the brain regions usually used to plan and select well-learned physical actions. The increased activity in motor areas of the brain helps hockey players and fans to better understanding hockey language. The results show that playing sports, or even just watching, builds a stronger understanding of language, Beilock said.

What is interesting here is the sport players or watchers were not playing or watching the sport just before this test so it wasn’t a case of priming. The better performance must have been a relatively long term change in the brain of the sport players and watchers compared to the non hockey group.

Being an athlete or merely a fan improves language skills when it comes to discussing their sport because parts of the brain usually involved in playing sports are instead used to understand sport language.

“We show that non-language related activities, such as playing or watching a sport, enhance one’s ability to understand language about their sport precisely because brain areas normally used to act become highly involved in language understanding,” said Sian Beilock, Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Chicago.

So because the brain areas involved in playing the sport (pre-motor and motor cortex I presume but in reality playing a sport involves not only motor action but also planning and thinking – so really the whole brain – but still you wouldn’t be thinking too verbally) or watching (the brain acts as if it playing – think mirror neurons) becomes ‘well developed’ so when it is not playing (or watching) the sport it can lend a hand to better understand language. But then why only language specific to the sport and not all language?

But the message the scientist wanted us to take home was:

The research could have greater implications for learning. It shows that engaging in an activity taps into brain networks not normally associated with language, which improves the understanding of language related to that activity, Beilock added.

So could the TV sport watching fans argue to their significant others that they are only watching to improve the communication between the two of them? Well at least for the football widows, as long as the discussion centers on, or at least includes; tackle, blitz, long-bomb, end-around, pass, run, etc.

But still overall watching sports is a big waste of time and surely anybody of high intelligence would not bother, right ? Well, I guess I should introduce you to David Foster Wallace.

David Foster Wallace, the genius level novelist that sadly died last week at the age of 46, in his younger years was a nationally ranked junior tennis player. One of the main character from his epic novel ‘Infinite Jest’ was a junior tennis player. Mr Wallace also wrote several essays about tennis and tennis players that can be found here for free at Harper’s magazine (a very nice gesture by the magazine to honor Mr Wallace). And the NY times has his piece about how watching Roger Federer play tennis is like a religious experience. If a genius like Mr. Wallace watched sports, and derived pleasure from it then that is enough for me to at least consider its worth.

Pat Anderson, in many peoples opinion the best wheelchair basketball player in the world, also wrote about Roger and how he got entranced watching him play recently at the US open.

It is obvious people do get great pleasure in watching their sports for numerous reasons, beyond improving their language skills. I am sure Mr. Wallace and Pat must have loved one of the all time great tennis match this summer at the men’s Wimbledon final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal (John McEnroe called it the greatest match ever).

Like many kids and young men I also use to spend a big chunk of time watching sports, but I have radically reduced my consumption starting about 15 years ago. Therefore, I have no need to rationalize my own limited sports consumption, but there is some evidence out there that it actually might be good for you and it gives so many pleasure.

So you could use the brain hack of watching sports to improve your language skill, but since the players gained as much as the watcher of sports then why not go with actually playing the sport. Playing the sport will give you all the additional exercise benefits I am always harping about. Play many different sports so you get a wider gain in language. Go climb a rock, run, leap, catch and throw a ball, dance (I want to learn this new dance form I saw at BurningMan – and I am a terrible dancer) -just get out there and move.

The piece was written to congratulate my two Paralympic Games medalist winning friends, and further expose people to the writings of David Foster Wallace. All three of them are both athletes and thinkers.

3 comments for “Playing and watching sports are good for your brain

  1. CC
    September 18, 2008 at 1:58 am

    Seems to me that much more guys than women are big fans of sports-watching. Maybe guys need much more help with communication/language than women…?

  2. Ward
    September 18, 2008 at 8:51 am


    good observation. You could be correct that more men watch sports (compared to women) to compensate for their low language ability. I guess in an effort to have better communication – they do it for the women in their lives. :)