Gray Matter on the Gridiron - What Does Neuroscience Have to Do with Football?The question on most people’s minds this Sunday will be “Packers or Steelers?” not “What does the Super Bowl have to do with your brain?” For those of us who are interested in neuroscience, though, it turns out that there is a whole body of fascinating research and writings on a variety of topics that involve both football and the brain.

Brain Damage & Football

Of course, the issue of concussions and brain damage suffered by football players through regular play is one of the most widely discussed topics of this nature. Some people suggest that the many concussions suffered this year by Green Bay Packers’ star quarterback Aaron Rodgers might throw him off his game this Sunday. There are also a lot of concerns about kids and concussions–so much so that the Cleveland Clinic just got a large grant to research the relationship between helmets, football, and brain damage in kids.

Ben McGrath just wrote an excellent piece in the New Yorker magazine that covers some of the history of brain damage in football, and looks at the differing views on what, if anything, can and should be done to curb future head injuries in the game. Malcolm Gladwell, who penned The Tipping Point and Blink, also wrote a captivating article in the New Yorker about the cultural interplay of football, dog fighting, and brain damage. He wonders why football is acceptable and dog fighting abhorred, when both have the effect of causing debilitating brain damage to the participants. There is a related question-and-answer session posted online as well, with supplemental information and responses from Gladwell.

One of the major issues with football and concussions is the inability to diagnose the seriousness of the injury in situ, meaning a brain-injured player might continue playing with an injury or even risk re-injury within the same game or practice session. A glimmer of good news in this area came out in Neurology this month, when scientists announced that they have devised a quick and reliable “sideline test” that can accurately diagnose an athlete’s concussion in mere minutes. It’s already being suggested that the NFL might adopt this new test as early as next season.

Another less-discussed but still debilitating corollary of the football/concussion issue is the use and abuse of painkillers. Since many players want to get back on the field quickly, they turn to pain medication. Research shows that 50% of retired NFL players used painkillers during their active careers, and of those, over 70% reported abusing the painkillers at that time. Post-career an estimated 15% of former players still admit to abusing pain medication.

Super Bowl Ads and “Neuromarketing”

How about those ads? Many people admit to watching the Super Bowl merely for the ads, and with Super Bowl slots comprising the biggest advertising investment most companies make in a year, it’s inevitable that they’d look for an objective way to measure efficacy. Enter the new field called “neuromarketing”–in which researchers scan your brain to see how you respond to advertising from a neural perspective. EEG (electroencephalography) scans and eye movements are collected from people while watching each Super Bowl ad, allowing the neuromarketers to compile a list of the “best” and the “worst.” But does this information correspond to actual sales? Many people say no. Being such a new field, we’ll let them keep trying and refining their techniques to see if they can get closer.

Now for the bad news on the ad front: new research has shown that kids who are exposed to violent ads coupled with aggressive sports (like football) show an increased tendency to think aggressive thoughts. On the bright side, it seems that talking to your kids about what they’ve seen and shielding them from particularly violent spots can cancel out the effect.

A Few More Interesting Points

It’s worth mentioning that the aforementioned Gladwell wrote another more esoteric football-related article which may be of interest as well. The article is about predicting success in football players versus teachers. Because the method for choosing football players has a higher success rate, he conceives a model based on the science behind how football players are selected and trained to predict success in other types of workers, like teachers, for improved outcomes in those areas.

A final note: if you’re worried about being let down if your team loses this Sunday, remember that research has shown that people who have low expectations tend to be happier. Go team!