Friday, July 23, 2010

Cognition and sports

Cognition in general is a tricky thing to test. Its not particularly clear what people mean when they say "I want to increase cognition" so it makes sense to categorise it. In the 70s a pharmacologist name Cornelius Giurgea coined the term nootropics in his search for a drug or substance that could generally enhance cognition. He came up with the following framework:

-Enhance learning and memory, especially under conditions of disturbed neural metabolism resulting from a lack of oxygen, electroshock or age-related changes
-Facilitate information flow between the cerebral hemispheres
-Enhance the general resistance of the brain to physical and chemical injuries
-Be devoid of any other psychological or physiological effects

Looking at his definition we see it lacking in sophistication. The facilitation of information flow between hemispheres seems extremely vague and the requirement to be devoid of side effects seems overly ambitious. More importantly it doesn't seem that relevant to sport. Far better to instead use a framework that included some of the established concepts of brain function and to include features that were testable in some quantitative way.

It is way outside the scope of this blog to define intelligence, but for its purposes we will assume it to be the efficient use of the brain to achieve the best results in any particular sport. When you consider what would help you build as a sportsman you are most likely thinking of long term memory retrieval: the ability to draw on expertise gathered from training. There are broadly two types of long term memory:

1. Acting on learned phenomena, called "procedural" or "implicit" memory
2. Understanding what phenomena is, called "declaritive" or "explicit" memory

For example there is something called the "mirror test" in which Alzheimers patients will be asked to learn a hand-eye coordination skill by drawing. The patients cannot recall performing the test because of their declarative memory impairment however their skill level at drawing in reverse is retained so their procedural memory is in tact.

When you consider specific sports you can see they often involve a delicate combination of both. On one hand you have something like golf, whereby the procedural action is working overtime, however there will still be declarative instances when you find yourself playing a new course with odd terrain. On the other hand you are playing tennis you will probably not only want to be able to recall procedurally your server, but also facts about how your opponent deals with backhands, whether she has a powerful serve etc.

Short-term memory hardly seems to be a factor in sport other than perhaps communicating a play or strategy so it will be largely ignored by this blog. Rather working memory is applicable as it encompasses short term memory and involves manipulation of stored short term data. In the examples above working memory would allow the golfer to quickly adapt to a change in wind and the tennis player to react to her opponent's better than expected backhand.

In this case any ingredient that successfully improves procedural, declarative and/or working memory in a siginificant fashion will be identified as a prime candidate for a mental enhancement supplement in sports.

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