Skip to main content
Move the World.
Does Playing Sports Quiet the Brain?

Lead image © Baluchis / Adobe Stock

In the 2010s, headlines about sports and the brain were mostly terrible: veteran athletes with a dozen concussions, and the leagues that still refuse to really change things. But with the giant exception of head injuries in contact sports, being an athlete is good for your body and your brain. A new study shows that athletes in different sports are all better at quieting their brains and focusing on what's really going on. The researchers say this could even mean prescribing sports for people with audio processing disorders.

Our brains make background noise all the time, sometimes loud enough that it might even wake us up from sleep.

Northwestern University has a lab for auditory neuroscience called Brainvolts. In 2018, they used a National Institutes of Health grant to team up with Northwestern's Division 1 sports teams to study brain topics like concussion from the point of view of hearing and balance. With a huge pool of gifted undergrad athletes and one of the best grad schools in the country, Brainvolts director Dr. Nina Kraus is in a great position to do this research.

Measuring Brain Static

To measure how people react to noise, Dr. Kraus's team put sensors on the scalps of almost 1,000 people, about half athletes and half non-athletes who were otherwise similar. The sensors measure the activity in the auditory processing part of the brain. Our brains make background noise all the time, sometimes loud enough that it might even wake us up from sleep. Scientists say the noise is like static on the radio, and if you can't tune in well, trying to hear your own big thoughts can be like just missing the right radio frequency and hearing a small voice through a sea of static.

People in the experiment heard a noise — just the syllable "da" over and over (guess they weren't Russians) —and the scalp sensors measured brain noise and how much the people's brains reacted to the sounds. The team found that athletes had a much bigger disparity between the volume of their brain noise and the volume of the "da" they heard. What surprised the scientists, though, was that athletes were able to hear the sounds better because they had mentally quieted their brain static. This is different from, say, musicians, who have learned to hear sounds more loudly while their brain static stays the same.

The Cold Water

There is definitely a "causation or correlation" question in this study. It's neat that athletes have quieter brains, but having quieter brains could lead them into sports, not the other way around. Dr. Kraus's team is still working on another study of athletes with concussion injuries, which can also affect how we hear noise in our brains and sounds around us.

The new study shows that athletes in different sports are all better at quieting their brains and focusing on what’s really going on.

With more data, Brainvolts could find out which thing causes the other, and if head injuries or auditory processing disorders could benefit from some kind of athletic therapy. The athletes Dr. Kraus's team tested didn't only play team sports with noisy crowds and lots of other people — even the runners and golfers had quieter brains. A day at the driving range, for medicine? If you insist.

Up Next

Animals
Scientists Put Bees in Little Reflective “Vests” for Bee Tracking
bee tracking
Animals
Scientists Put Bees in Little Reflective “Vests” for Bee Tracking
Bee tracking is difficult and expensive, and smaller bees are left out. Lightweight, inexpensive tags may be a solution.

Bee tracking is difficult and expensive, and smaller bees are left out. Lightweight, inexpensive tags may be a solution.

Biology
Common Mouth Microbe Appears to Trigger Cancer Metastasis
Cancer Metastasis
Biology
Common Mouth Microbe Appears to Trigger Cancer Metastasis
Scientists are finally starting to understand the connection between the common oral microbe fusobacterium and colon cancer metastasis.

Scientists are finally starting to understand the connection between the common oral microbe fusobacterium and colon cancer metastasis.

Medicine
“Antivitamins” Could Be the Cure for Antibiotic Resistance
Antibiotic Resistance
Medicine
“Antivitamins” Could Be the Cure for Antibiotic Resistance
The B1 antivitamin helps bacteria kill competing bacteria, leading researchers to suspect it could help us fight antibiotic resistance and superbugs.

The B1 antivitamin helps bacteria kill competing bacteria, leading researchers to suspect it could help us fight antibiotic resistance and superbugs.

Oceans
These Ultra-Black Deep-Sea Fish Absorb Over 99% of Light
deep sea fish
Oceans
These Ultra-Black Deep-Sea Fish Absorb Over 99% of Light
Researchers have discovered ultra-black deep-sea fish that can absorb over 99% of light. Their skin may hold secrets to creating new ultra-dark materials.

Researchers have discovered ultra-black deep-sea fish that can absorb over 99% of light. Their skin may hold secrets to creating new ultra-dark materials.

Fertility
Cancer Survivor Gives Birth Thanks to a New Fertility Procedure
Cancer Survivor Gives Birth Thanks to a New Fertility Procedure
Fertility
Cancer Survivor Gives Birth Thanks to a New Fertility Procedure
A French cancer survivor is the first person to give birth via a fertility treatment that involves freezing and thawing eggs that underwent in vitro maturation.

A French cancer survivor is the first person to give birth via a fertility treatment that involves freezing and thawing eggs that underwent in vitro maturation.

The Edge
The Strange Science of Sports Recovery with Christie Aschwanden
The Strange Science of Sports Recovery with Christie Aschwanden
The Edge
The Strange Science of Sports Recovery with Christie Aschwanden
From infrared pajamas to cryo chambers, athletes swear recovery methods give them an edge on the playing field. But what does science have to say about it?

From infrared pajamas to cryo chambers, athletes swear recovery methods give them an edge on the playing field. But what does science have to say about it?

Meet the Amateur Astronomer Who Found a Lost NASA Satellite
Meet the Amateur Astronomer Who Found a Lost NASA Satellite
Watch Now
Meet the Amateur Astronomer Who Found a Lost NASA Satellite
A $130 million satellite vanished. Over a decade later, a blogger/astronomer found it.
Watch Now

Amateur astronomer Scott Tilley made international headlines when he rediscovered NASA’s IMAGE satellite, 13 years after it mysteriously disappeared. In this interview with Freethink, Scott discusses his role in the satellite’s recovery, why he enjoys amateur astronomy, and how citizen scientists like him have contributed to our knowledge of space from the space race to the present day.

Dispatches
A New Brain Surgery Robot Can Work Inside an MRI
A New Brain Surgery Robot Can Work Inside an MRI
Dispatches
A New Brain Surgery Robot Can Work Inside an MRI
Metal robots and electric motors don't normally play well with giant magnets.

Metal robots and electric motors don't normally play well with giant magnets.

Wrong
What Happened to the Beepocalypse?
What Happened to the Beepocalypse?
Watch Now
Wrong
What Happened to the Beepocalypse?
In 2006 bees started disappearing. Beekeepers reported to losing up to 90% of their beehives. And no one knew why....
Watch Now

In 2006 bees started disappearing. Beekeepers reported to losing up to 90% of their beehives. And no one knew why. Nearly every news outlet raised the alarm, warning of an imminent beepocalypse that would devastate our food supply. But while alarm bells rang, things turned around. And bee colonies are now at a 20 year high. How did we get the beepocalypse so… wrong?