In the study, researchers at Northwestern University measured the brain activity of 1,000 male and female subjects, 500 of whom played for Division 1 college sports teams, using scalp electrodes while the subjects listened to speech syllables through headphones.
The researchers then analyzed “the ratio of background noise to the response to the speech sounds by looking at how big the response to sound was relative to the background noise,” according to a Monday release. The findings revealed that athletes have “larger responses to sound than non-athletes,” which makes it easier for athletes to process external sounds, such as their coach shouting from the bench, for example.
"No one would argue against the fact that sports lead to better physically fitness, but we don't always think of brain fitness and sports," senior research Nina Kraus is quoted as saying in the press release. "We're saying that playing sports can tune the brain to better understand one's sensory environment."
According to Kraus, the concept of filtering background electrical noise in the brain can be likened to listening to a DJ on the radio.
"Think of background electrical noise in the brain like static on the radio," Kraus explained. "There are two ways to hear the DJ better: minimize the static or boost the DJ's voice. We found that athlete brains minimize the background 'static' to hear the 'DJ' better."
"A serious commitment to physical activity seems to track with a quieter nervous system. And perhaps, if you have a healthier nervous system, you may be able to better handle injury or other health problems,” Kraus added.
Similarly, musicians and those who speak more than one language can better process sound signals. However, the brains of musicians and multilingual people can better hear incoming sounds by turning the external sounds in their brain up rather than by turning the background noise in their brain down.
"They all hear the 'DJ' better, but the musicians hear the 'DJ' better because they turn up the 'DJ,' whereas athletes can hear the 'DJ' better because they can tamp down the 'static,'" Kraus explained.