Professional surfers prize their sense of Zen, the peace that comes with participating in a sport that is ultimately beholden to the waves and wonders of the ocean. Part of this, of course, is attributable to the beautiful surroundings, but the fundamental reason for a surfer’s sense of well-being never changes: It comes from the brain.
There has been a significant amount of study about the importance of sports psychology. But there’s a burgeoning field of science that looks beyond the anecdotal accounts of self-esteem generated by a coach’s pep talk or visualizing a successful competition. It treats the brain like a muscle, monitoring its responses and training it to do better. It’s not about what a person’s brain makes them feel—it’s about what the brain makes them do.
“A surfer spends a lot of time training to be better, and what his trainer and his coaches focus on are his muscles, his concentration: a lot of things to do with your body and the skills you can control,” says neuroscientist Moran Cerf. “But that’s the body. What we want to do is focus on their brains.”
Cerf, a professor at UCLA and Northwestern University, is exploring how to monitor the brain’s response in athletic situations with the goal of understanding how it controls the body’s physical reaction.
Take an example of brain monitoring of the type Cerf is able to accomplish now: An elite athlete is told to get on a treadmill and run as long as he can. Two hours later, muscles cramping and sweat dripping, he hits the stop button.
Next up on the treadmill is a Homer Simpson-esque gentleman, and he’s given the same instruction: Run as long as you can. After three minutes he gasps, hits the stop button, staggers off, and grabs a recovery doughnut.
On the surface, these two runners have nothing in common. But seconds before they quit, their brains both triggered a similar “Nope! We’re done here! No more!” burst of activity that instructed their muscles to quit running. It doesn’t matter that one’s a marathoner and the other a couch potato.
The question for Cerf then becomes how to stall this quit activity from occurring in the brain in order to improve stamina. “Somewhere in your brain there are two components—one that says, ‘I can’t go on anymore,’ and one that says, ‘I have to continue,’ ” Cerf says. “They’re in competition. We can look at the brain, what the state is when they stopped, and we can say, ‘You can do better.’ ”
Just knowing that the brain—and not the muscles—is imposing the limit can improve athletic performance. Simply acknowledging that you are striving to postpone the brain activity that tells you to quit increases endurance. For the marathoner, it could mean running for another 10 minutes even though he feels exhausted. For Homer Simpson, it could mean pushing it for another two to make it an even five on the treadmill. Just call it the neuroscience version of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: Knowing that your brain activity is being measured gives you the ability to change how it functions.
And once this type of brain monitoring is perfected, it can expand into what Cerf refers to as “science-fiction” scenarios— but ones that could have a very real impact on professional sports.
Across all sports, there is the home- field advantage—or, in surf, you can call it a home-wave advantage. With advances in brain monitoring, scientists would be able to tell which athletes’ brains respond better to competing in front of a home crowd—an advantage that couldn’t ever be matched by their visiting competitors.
“This person does better if the surfing competition happens in Hawaii than if it happens in South Africa,” Cerf says. “Whereas this other guy doesn’t, so it’s unfair that the first surfer gets first place. You don’t allow performance-enhancing drugs, but you do allow different brains. How can this be OK?”
Another bit of future shock: Brain monitoring can be used to facilitate the use of artificial limbs—even in able- bodied people. There is an experiment now only performed on animals that is twofold: Electrodes are implanted in the brain of a monkey and connected to a prosthetic arm, while the working arm of the creature is bound. With a week of practice, the monkey’s brain has rewired itself to be able to move the prosthetic. Next comes the sci-fi element: Once the working arm is untied, the monkey can move both its natural arms—and its new prosthetic arm.
Right now, the idea of manipulating the human body in such a way is like something out of Blade Runner. But will people feel the same way in the future, after five Olympics are held and no one sets a world record? Cerf believes that in some sports, we’re reaching the limit of human potential—and brain monitoring and resulting body modification could be the answer to keeping sports thrilling.
“People thought, 60 years ago, that altering your body is outrageous, but now every 12-year-old girl gets breast implants,” Cerf says. “Eventually we’re going to get to the place where if people want to be athletes, instead of training for six months on the mountain, we’re going to buy mountain legs and just run with them and that’s it. We will allow people to improve their body, and we will call that Human 2.0.”