A Single Brain Structure May Give Winners That Extra Physical Edge

An extraordinary insula helps elite athletes better anticipate their body's upcoming feelings, improving their physical reactions

Recent studies indicate that the brain's insular cortex may help a sprinter drive his body forward just a little more efficiently than his competitors. (Matthias Kulka / Corbis)

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Compared with healthy participants, the elite warriors sent more blood coursing through their insulas and a few other regions when the shapes' colors differed in consecutive trials. In short, they were more aware of the impending switch from positive to negative or vice versa and engaged brain systems involved in modulating emotional and interoceptive responses. They were quicker to prepare for a looming shift in their internal states, buying their brains time to tamp down their reactions.

Taken together, the studies indicate that men and women who have extreme physical abilities show greater insula activation when anticipating a change to their internal feelings, whether emotional or physical.

"To me that's really huge if you have a region of the brain that's anticipating a response and preparing the body for it," physiologist Jon Williamson at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center says. "If an athlete is approaching a hill and can anticipate the delivery of blood to muscles, he or she may perform better on that hill."

The studies so far have been small, however—it's not easy to corral top-tier athletes into brain-imaging labs—so larger experiments are still needed to firm up the observations. Even so, the results echo earlier findings on the insula's involvement in imagining the future, whether anticipating physical pain from, say, a boxer's punch or contemplating the purchase of an overpriced item.

To Simmons, the evidence suggests that the insula does not live in the present, but the future. "We're responding to information incorporated from physiology, cognition, our surroundings," Simmons says. "By the time we've integrated all that, it's part of the past." The ability to forecast can also backfire, producing disorders such as anorexia nervosa, which combines lapses in bodily awareness with a concern for how food consumption now will alter body image in the future. "It's the anticipation that's getting in your way," Simmons says. Indeed, brain scans of individuals with eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder show that insula activity diverges from that seen in healthy subjects, suggesting impairments in this area.

Train your interoception

For aspiring athletes or individuals who suffer insular dysfunction, there are reasons to hope interoception is trainable. A meditation technique called mindfulness encourages people to tune into their present thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations. Derived from Buddhist teachings, this training seeks to heighten awareness of feelings but also to temper our reactions to them. The OptiBrain researchers have collected preliminary data, not yet published, suggesting that healthy subjects and military personnel who received mindfulness training improved in cognitive performance during a stressful situation—as measured with a breathing-restriction task—and reacted to challenges with less emotion, with the insular activation changes to match.

Small-scale studies on athletes, too, show benefit. This awareness of the feeling of the moment has been shown, for example, to improve the success of basketball players on the free-throw line. Sports psychologist Claudio Robazza at the University of Chieti in Italy has seen firsthand how mindfulness and similar techniques can single out successful athletes. He has worked for six years with Italy's Olympic shooting team, a mentally demanding sport that favors individuals who can still nail their targets when the pressure is highest. "Emotional states can reflect bodily changes, an increase in heart rate, muscular tension and breathing—all those things cause changes in the performance and the final outcome," Robazza says. "Certainly athletes need to be aware of their responses."

With tens of thousands of people gazing down from stadium seats, and millions more tuned in to television broadcasts, an Olympic athlete runs a high risk of choking. The stress of the moment can trigger many physical changes that interfere in the execution of even the most deeply ingrained maneuvers. A heightened awareness of the body's condition, facilitated by the insula, can alert a champion to tensed muscles or shallow breaths before these responses have a chance to undermine performance. The insula—where the body meets the brain—serves as the springboard from which athletic brilliance can soar.

This feature is courtesy of Scientific American, our content partner in bringing you everything you'll want to know about the Summer Olympics, and is part of its Winning in the Olympics report.


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