Texting Thumbs Light Up The Brain


By Dan Peterson, TeamSnap's Sports Science Expert

 

One of the foundations of development for young athletes is that repetition of new skills will, over time, build improvement. Take 1000 free throws and the neural circuits associated with the necessary muscle movements will grow stronger. Known as neuroplasticity, this ability of the brain to adapt to new requirements helps us survive in an ever changing world.

Shooting free throws, hitting curveballs or typing with your thumbs are all great examples of neuroplasticity. Wait, what was that last one? That’s right, the advanced skill of high speed texting on a smartphone with thumbs flying across a virtual keyboard. Unlike standard typing where all ten fingers are involved, the thumbs have been promoted to a higher status on the reduced real estate of a touchscreen. 

Swiss researchers saw this as a great opportunity to study neuroplasticity since advanced thumb use is a new skill for most people, young and old.  

"I think first we must appreciate how common personal digital devices are and how densely people use them. What this means for us neuroscientists is that the digital history we carry in our pockets has an enormous amount of information on how we use our fingertips (and more),” said Arko Ghosh Ph.D., researcher at the University of Zurich.

So, Ghosh and his team gathered two sets of volunteers, texting whizzes and those still clinging to their non-smart flip phones. Using electroencephalography (EEG), each volunteer had their brain’s electrical activity measured when their thumbs, index and middle fingertips were touched. Then, they asked to see the history of the smartphone owners activity to gauge the intensity of their use.  

They found that higher levels of smartphone keyboard use resulted in a higher level of electrical activity in the area of the brain associated with finger dexterity. In fact, for users who spent the most time on their phone, their brains lit up with activity whenever their fingertips were touched.

"I was really surprised by the scale of the changes introduced by the use of smartphones," said Ghosh. "I was also struck by how much of the inter-individual variations in the fingertip-associated brain signals could be simply explained by evaluating the smartphone logs."

Their research has been published in Current Biology.

Just as with sports practice, the more repetitions of a skill, the deeper the connections in the brain for that skill. Think of the increased dexterity of a soccer player’s feet or the fingertip control of a baseball pitcher.  

In the same way, Ghosh and his team conclude that, "we propose that cortical sensory processing in the contemporary brain is continuously shaped by personal digital technology.”

A good lesson for young athletes of how practice can literally change their brains.

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Dan Peterson is a recovering sports dad who is fascinated with sports science research, skill development and the athlete’s brain. He has written over 400 science-based articles across the Web and consults with parents, coaches and young players to help them understand the cognitive side of sports. You can visit him at Sports Are 80 Percent Mental and at @DanielPeterson.

Release Date: Nov 18 2016


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