Neuroscience reveals the secret to Neymar's skills
Brain power to spare gives Barcelona striker his famous footwork
SHOJI YANO, Nikkei staff writer
TOKYO What makes world-class athletes like those who participate in the Olympics or World Cup soccer different from the rest of us? For most people, the first answer that likely comes to mind is either physical traits -- amount of muscle or cardiopulmonary strength, say -- or mental fortitude, the ability to persevere in the face of adversity.
So if an ordinary person trained extensively and acquired the same level of physical athleticism, could he or she take on a pro? The answer, according to neuroscience, appears to be no.
"There are vast differences between an average person and an athlete in the ability of the brain to send instructions that cause the body to move," according to Eiichi Naito, a principal investigator at the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology.
Naito hopes to elucidate the relationship between the mind and the body by researching the brain activity of famous soccer players.
His focus has been on Neymar, the star forward for FC Barcelona, in Spain's top professional football division. Despite being just 25 years old, Neymar possesses an exceptional level of ability that has helped him to produce a plethora of goals for the Brazilian national team and contribute to the host nation's gold-medal win at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. He is famous for having a wide range of skills to drawn on, from magnificent footwork to tricky feints.
In 2014, Naito got the opportunity to study Neymar's brain in action by means of functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. This technology reveals brain activity levels by measuring changes in blood flow inside the brain. When Naito looked at how the part of the brain known as the motor cortex, which governs motor functions, behaved when a person told their foot to move, a startling result emerged.
The number of neurons Neymar used to make a given movement was just 10% or less compared with footballers in Spain's second-tier soccer division, amateur players and other athletes.
"A normal athlete uses numerous neurons even when simply moving their foot, but Neymar uses his brain much more efficiently," Naito explains. The fewer the number of neurons needed for a single movement, the more that can be used for other movements. This is the secret behind the football star's skillful footwork.
PITCH PERFECT Researchers have also found similarities between the brain activity of soccer players and pianists. "Pianists have fewer neurons that are active inside the brain compared to non-pianists," according to Shinichi Furuya, a researcher at Sony Computer Science Laboratories.
Pianists who can move their fingers freely without engaging large portions of their brain have surplus brain capacity, even when they are tickling the ivory at speeds a normal person cannot replicate. This enables them to make still faster, more complex movements. "Because they are not using energy for each and every sound, they can perform concerts for hours on end," Furuya said. "Different sections of the brain are active for feet and for hands, but otherwise, pianists and footballers are both athletes."
So how does one go about acquiring such a brain? It turns out that Neymar's father is also a former soccer player. Similarly, the fathers of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms were all musicians. But if one must be genetically blessed in order to become a world-class athlete or musician, research into this field would lose much of its interest.
"There have never been pianists or violinists who have become virtuosos without being trained at a very young age," Furuya points out. Humans go through a stage called the critical period during childhood in which the brain's activity is readily influenced by environment and experience. Undergoing training during this period could have a profound effect on later motor functions.
Neymar reportedly began dribbling and playing with a soccer ball from the moment he began walking. Mozart is said to have begun playing the harpsicord at the age of three. As research into exercise and brain functions progresses, it appears likely that we will learn in greater detail when training has the greatest impact.
Research is also being done in baseball to shed light on the relationship between the workings of the brain and the body. This year, a team led by Makio Kashino, senior distinguished scientist at NTT Communication Science Laboratories, began studying the differences between the way pro and non-pro ballplayers use their brains, with cooperation from the University of Tokyo and Keio University baseball clubs.
Stark differences readily appear among athletes in the complex work of responding to a curve ball. Kashino is enthusiastic: "The question is what kind of information processing inside the brain changes a player's movements. We want to elucidate that mechanism."
Understanding the relationship between the brain and athletics is a developing field. But despite the evidence that youthful training breeds prodigies, it is important to remember that people can become proficient at a sport even if they take it up at a later age. This is because practice can enable a person to use their neurons more efficiently. "If you practice, there is a chance to improve no matter when you start," Furuya said.
Keyword: Motor cortex
Various regions make up the cerebral cortex, which covers the outside of the cerebellum -- the part of the brain that governs thinking and memory-- and each of these has a different function. One of these regions is the motor cortex, known as the control tower for moving the body.
The motor cortex itself is divided into a number of sections. The primary motor cortex houses a "map" that dictates what muscles in the body contract if a given section is stimulated. When these sections receive a weak electrical stimulus from outside, the corresponding body muscles contract and move.
There is also a section known as the premotor cortex, which is related to complex movements. Impairment to this section makes it difficult to move the body. A person will have trouble walking, for instance, if the brain is not aware of and able to control the feet.