It turns out Olympians and other elite athletes aren't only physically superior to the rest of us, they may also have a mental superiority as well.
New research, based on study of Brazilian volleyball players, suggests that they receive and process information faster than their nonathletic counterparts. Interestingly, the improvement was especially noticeable in female athletes, who performed similarly on cognitive tests to male athletes. Nonathletic females, however, tended to perform tasks slower than nonathletic males.
"We found that athletes were generally able to inhibit behavior, to stop quickly when they had to, which is very important in sport and in daily life," said University of Illinois psychology professor Arthur Kramer. "They were also able to activate, to pick up information from a glance and to switch between tasks more quickly than nonathletes. I would say these were modest differences, but they were interesting differences nonetheless."
Kramer and his team studied 87 top ranked Brazilian volleyball players, some of whom medaled in the 2008 or 2012 Olympics, as well as 67 nonathletic contemporaries. The researchers found that the athletes held a decided advantage in a multitude of areas. The volleyball players were faster at memory tests, quicker to notice objects in their peripheral vision and better at accomplishing tasks while ignoring irrelevant or misleading information.
The study, which was published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology and is also available online, seems to support previous evidence which shows that years spent on a physical task can improve cognition.
"Perhaps people gravitate to these sports because they're good at both," Kramer said. "Or perhaps it’s the training that enhances their cognitive abilities as well as their physical ones. My intuition is that it’s a little bit of both."