Champion’s mind: dive with a neurobiologist into the brains of top athletes

Champion's mind: dive with a neurobiologist into the brains of top athletes

A few days before the start of the Rugby World Cup, Robert Jaffard, neurobiologist, explores the links between sport and memory and underlines the importance of mental preparation for top athletes. A fascinating dive into the minds of champions.

Member of the B2V Observatory of Memories, neurobiologist Robert Jaffard details the links between physical activity, memory and more generally brain activity.

Sport good for memory

Can the practice of a sport play on our memory? Yes, according to our expert who recalls that work carried out on animals and humans has shown that physical activity improves declarative/relational memory which, like episodic memory and spatial memory, critically depends on seahorse. Physical activity would also improve the functioning of the prefrontal cortex which, in relation to the hippocampus, plays an essential role in encoding, consolidating and recalling memories.

What is the biological explanation for these links? “Recently, cathepsin B, an enzyme produced during physical activity, has been shown to be one of the peripheral signals that stimulate hippocampal plasticity and its positive consequences on memory.“says the expert.

But beyond this hypothesis, he insists on the observed effect of physical activity on aging: 150 min/week of physical activity (WHO recommendation) is enough to improve the memory of young adults and even, beyond that, counteract the deleterious effects of normal and pathological aging.

The memory of the right gesture goes through repetition

Just as musicians repeat their scales, sportsmen repeat numerous playing sequences, precise gestures… What is the purpose of this repetition? Our expert enlightens us. “The development of this motor or perceptual-motor “skill” (competence), a form of non-declarative memory called procedural, goes through three stages: a cognitive stage of explicit representation of the gesture, an associative stage of repeated execution with correction of errors and an autonomous stage where the skill becomes a “motor program” comparable to an innate reflex“.

In other words, the repetition makes it possible to put in place at the cerebral level precise cerebral “maps” which will incorporate the right gesture, the right timing… to the point of modifying the brain. “Morphometric neuroimaging effectively shows that the expertise of high-level athletes, from golfers to boxers, including basketball players and gymnasts, is associated, depending on the discipline practiced, with marked morphological “traces” in the gray matter and the white matter of specific brain regions. And in total, it is estimated that more than 80% of the cerebral gray matter of an adult brain is modifiable by physical activity.” said the expert.

The importance of mental work

Mental work is complementary to physical preparation. It consists in imagining the movement accompanied by all the sensations it produces (eg muscular tension, visual perceptions) and including, if possible, the order and timing of the motor sequences that make it up. This mental imagery leads to performance gains comparable to those obtained by effective physical exercise. Both are complementary and comparably enhanced by sleep.

Mental imagery has shown that observing or executing a particular movement oneself activates the same neurons. This is called the “mirror neuron” system.“says our expert.

Added to this is another type of mental work that explores so-called “open” skills when they have to adapt to a changing environment (eg movements of the ball, ball or puck as well as the opposing player(s). “This will be for example the explicit mental construction of possible future scenarios from the memory of past experiences including their emotional tone“says the neurobiologist.

How do you stay focused on your goal?

How to stay focused on D-Day? Should memory (evocation of memories, etc.) be set aside to leave room only for extreme concentration? “Although these two memory systems are often considered to be functionally independent or “encapsulated”, there are experimental situations in which they can compete (eg memory of a list of words can interfere with the recall of a digital motor sequence )“ admits the expert.

To remain focused on a single objective, it is necessary to try to silence the “default mode network” (RMD), made up of cerebral structures whose synchronous activation leads, in the subject at rest, to a “mental wandering” carrying between others on the evocation of personal memories (autobiographical memory).

Reducing or suppressing the activity of the RMD to focus on the objective of the moment supposes a switch of the cerebral activity towards the executive system of the prefrontal cortex which allows a “refocusing” on the action in progress and its management.” says Robert Jaffard.

So many keys that will allow top athletes but also amateur athletes to achieve their goals and improve their physical condition and memory.

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