Monday, April 20, 2009

Jim Thorpe. The World's Smartest Man?

I never understood the argument that athletes get paid too much. A kid grows up, shows up at practice, usually for multiple sports in the rain and snow and heat. Sweats, works, develops skills. And then at the end of 15-20 years or so of hard work it pays off with a 10,000 to one shot and a pro contract. I always imagine the people who complain the most are people who’ve never worked really hard for anything in their life.

"I worked really hard. I just chose to develop my brain,” they would counter. But they'd be comparatively lazy. They only developed their brain. Athletes develop their brains too, but the development is done through structured and dedicated bodily movement. It is a different part of the brain, but it is still the cortex. It's still neurons and synapses blending and communicating. It's still neuroplasticity.

Research into stroke recovery has revealed a simple truth: If someone was an athlete, at any point in their life (not necessarily right before their stroke), they have a better chance of a more full recovery. Why might former athletes do better? Is it because the movement portion of the brain, the part that is typically injured after stroke, is bigger in athletes? Or is it because athletes are used to training insanely hard for results?

I asked this of a neurologist and neurosurgeon, Prithika Chariwhen when we met at a shared talk in Munich 3 years ago. Her answer was simple (considering she was a brain surgeon); “Probably both."

Stroke survivors need to be athletes. By extension stroke survivors also need to be dancers and yogis and musicians. Work as hard as athletes.

And for all those nincompoops who think using your motor cortex is just plain dumb, click on this.

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