The Greatest Athletes’ Secret Weapon? Their Brains

The soccer star Neymar
The soccer star Neymar
Carolina Muniz and Philippe Watanabe

SAO PAULO â€" The brains of highly trained athletes function more efficiently than others. Sports players activate only the parts of the cortex â€" the outer layer of the brain â€" necessary for specific movements like dribbles, tackles or saves such as those employed by soccer goalkeepers. "These athletes activate a smaller part of their brains but they use it a lot better," said Paula Fernandes, a sports psychologist at the University of Campinas.

Try to picture the brain as a supermarket. An elite athlete knows the exact location of the items he wants to buy. He can go to the right aisle and the right shelf directly, without looking around. An amateur might know in which aisle to look, but it's going to take him some time until he finds the exact spot. And he'll waste more energy.

Brazil's soccer superstar Neymar is among the few who have soccer shortcuts wired in their brains, according to findings published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in 2014. Using magnetic resonance imaging, Japanese scientists compared the brain of Neymar, who plays for FC Barcelona, to those of three Spanish second-league players â€" two swimmers and one amateur athlete. During the examination, they were all asked to move their feet as if they were dribbling past an opponent.

The experiment showed Neymar was activating a much smaller part of his cortex than the other professionals. Compared to the inexperienced athlete, the difference was even greater.

"A soccer star executes his movements in a natural, automatic way, which frees up space in his brain so he can think and act quicker during the game," explained neurologist Eiichi Naito who carried out the study. "His brain has adapted to the game and dedicates more neuronal resources to the anticipation of other players' actions.”

Portuguese soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo can even score in the dark. It might sound like an exaggeration but he actually pulled it off during a test for a British TV show in 2011. The lights were switched off after the ball was kicked but Ronaldo was able to meet the ball by predicting the ball's path based solely on the kicker's movements.

"The athlete looks for clues the opponent gives away before executing an attack or defensive move. That way, he can anticipate them and act accordingly," explained Bruna Velasques, a neuroscientist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.

In the most physically challenging sports, victory and defeat can be a matter of milliseconds. In boxing, for instance, each move happens in about 0.08 seconds. That is faster than the blink of an eye. If a fighter simply waits for his opponent's punch to react, he would be knocked out soon.

"Boxing is a sport that requires a lot of intelligence," said Taynna Taygma, Brazil's top female boxer in the 60-kilogram category.

Years of intense training have transformed athletes' brains into a sort of data bank where all the moves they've learned during their careers are stored. The moment the brain perceives the opponent's move, it swiftly looks for the best way to overcome the obstacle.

"How do I find out where the other player is going to place the ball? It looks like I'm a ninja, right?" said tennis player Flávio Saretta, who won a gold medal in the 2007 Pan American Games. "It's the result of a lot of training and high-level playing."

Roger Federer's ability to read the game and surprise his opponents explains the Swiss national’s exceptional career and achievements, said Saretta. "He almost never sweats on the court. He manages to guess where the ball will go and he anticipates it. You are left with the impression that wherever you play the ball, he'll be there to get it. It's a gift."

For the greatest sports players, it’s a mix of talent and never-ending training. "They start practicing as children. The high number of repetitions provokes changes in the brain that improve their thought and ability," said Ricardo Arida, a neurophysiologist at the Federal University of São Paulo. The parts of the brain that are required for a specific sport therefore develop a higher quantity of neurons, thereby increasing gray matter. The same happens for professionals in other fields like music and dance.

But training alone is not enough. "Genetics also plays a part. In the end, even if many people start playing soccer from a young age, not everybody's going to turn into a Neymar,” said Arida.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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