The beautiful game and the beautiful brain

They call it the “beautiful game” and it’s easy to see why…

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Ok, perhaps not always beautiful. Still, Soccer, or futbol, is unarguably one of the world’s most universal sports. The 2014 World Cup Final was watched by an estimated 3.2 billion people, nearly half the world’s population. An audience this large could not be woo’d by something on TV that was visually unappealing, or at least possessed some sort of other quality making it worth watching. It’s not unreasonable to believe, therefore, that watching soccer could affect and activate our brains in unique and interesting ways.

There is something about the unique movements in soccer that draw us in– the strings of passes, the perfect strike on a corner kick, the tip of the ball over the net by the goalkeepers fingertips. There is little research as to why we appreciate soccer as something so beautiful. Some theories include  that the game has an air of fluidity. Others theorize the fact that the game is so universal, no matter what your socioeconomic status or nationality is. Some even argue that certain styles of play are more beautiful than others. A few years ago, Nike launched an advertising campaign called Joga Bonito, which is Portuguese for Play Beautifully, intended to celebrate the technical and tactical style of the Brazilian national team. It’s difficult to know what exactly makes it so beautiful, but what is known is that many of us treat soccer the way that we treat a great work of art.

A lingering question in all analyses of art is how our personal experiences affect our engagement with the piece. Soccer, if you consider it an art, raises the same question. Do those familiar with the game react to seeing it differently? Our common sense should tell us yes, but recently, science has also confirmed.

In one study, researches examined brain activity among low and high skill soccer players while they watched videos of soccer “feints.” For those who can’t tell a yellow card from a credit card, a feint is, in soccer, a distracting fake movement meant to confuse a defender. Pictured below, Ronaldo de Assis Moreira (Ronaldinho) demonstrates a world-class feint.

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If you’re like me, even after the thousandth time watching it, you still believe he’s going to move to his right. This could be, however, a reaction based on my skill level in soccer. While he could have easily fooled me, a world class player like Ronaldinho can often not fool world class defenders. A recent study (Wright et al., 2013) examined brain activity in both low-skill soccer players and high-skill soccer players while they watched video feed of attackers using feint moves. They were asked to try to predict whether or not the players were feinting or not. An EEG  analysis revealed higher activity in the Action Observation Network (AON)  among those who were more skilled at soccer. This brain area is composed of a collection of sensorimotor regions including the frontal, parietal and occipitotemporal regions. These findings, building on previous research, highlight not only the observational capacity of this network, but also the predictive and imaginative ability it may also possess. In other words, it doesn’t just watch soccer, it understands and predicts it.

This research, while exciting, was composed with one obvious methodological flaw. While the researchers used groups of high-skilled males and low-skilled males, they only included low-skilled females in their analyses. Aside from what I can only perceive to be a rather egregious error in participant recruitment, this analysis, because of the lack of high-skilled females, lacks a level of depth that could have provided robust and interesting implications for sex-differences in perceptions of soccer movement. The researchers found that the low-skilled females showed activity in the visual cortex– an area of the brain that the low-skilled males did not, and attributed this to the possibility that the low-skilled females are much more novice to the sport than males. However, it’s nearly impossible to tell that this is not simply due to a sex difference, as we have no idea what is happening in a high skilled female soccer player’s brain, which does in fact exist, and in plentitude.

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Interesting further research would include high-skilled females as well. The authors also made a point to mention that brain activation in females could be different because all the video clips shown were male. It could also be interesting to note how videos of soccer players of a particular gender influence how our brains react. Furthermore, the activation of the AON may be less of an acquirement of the skill to read someone, and more a sort of “reverse mirror neuron” effect. Recent research has implied that the AON is highly active during not only motions that are familiar to us, but also to actions that are “like me” (Gardner, Goulden & Cross, 2015).  It’s possible then, that players who are high-skilled see a bit of themselves in other players’ movements, in a way, and are therefore more easily able to predict them.

Clearly, there are still many questions to understand not the neuroscience of not only soccer, but beautiful motion in general. Someday, perhaps our research will have the answer as to why our brains seem to derive so much pleasure out of watching, and playing, this beautiful game.

 

References

Gardner, Goulden, & Cross (2015). Dynamic Modulation of the Observation Network by Movement Familiarity. Journal of Neuroscience 35(4) 1561-1572.

Wright, Bishop, Jackson & Abernethy (2013). Brain Regions Concerned with the Identification of Deceptive Soccer Moves by Higher-Skilled and Lower-Skilled Players. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 7.

 

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