October 27, 2017

"[I]f you intensely think at the same time as you intensely exercise, your performance in both thinking and moving can worsen."

"But your muscles’ performance will decline much more than your brain’s will," according to a new study, the NYT reports.

The study was based on testing a group of young men — rowers at Cambridge University in England — on 3 occasions: 1. The sat and memorized words, 2. They worked a rowing machine, 3. They memorized words while working a rowing machine.
Almost uniformly, the men had been able to produce fewer watts [on the machine] and recall fewer words when they performed the muscular and mental tasks together.

But the falloff in physical functioning was much steeper than the mental slump. The rowers lost almost 13 percent of their power output, a decline that was about 30 percent greater than their loss in word recall after the combined session.

“Our proposed explanation for this finding is that they were both competing for the same resource,” which in this case was blood sugar for fuel, says Danny Longman, a postdoctoral research fellow at Cambridge who led the study.

And the brain won.
I'm not impressed that the brain generally "wins." It was a rowing machine, not a run to capture needed food or to escape injury. I suspect it's just more interesting to memorize words then to row a machine and maybe pride motivates Cambridge college guys to pay more attention to an intelligence test.

Now, I'm reading the comments over there. Here's the highest-rated one: "The rowing didn't last long enough to deplete the muscles' stored glycogen; they weren't competing with the brain for anything but 'attention.' This protocol was useless for addressing the stated hypothesis."

Second-highest: "Assuming the info about this study has been accurately described this is the silliest thing ever concluded. An equally appropriate conclusion as to what might be causing the decrease in 'power output' of the muscles is the brain's decrease in 'attention output' to muscle task versus mental one!"

I find that mental distraction improves my physical ability. When I'm walking or biking and get very absorbed in my thoughts — for example, thinking up an idea for a book and planning it —  I'm better at the physical activity because I'm not paying attention to it. If I think about the next hill or how far I am from the end, I feel the strain and get balky. But with active thought, the body is automatic and efficient.

34 comments:

rhhardin said...

I started listening to ham morse code bands a few years ago on bike commutes. I found that suddenly I never arrived anywhere out of breath.

The mind goes into a different space and doesn't worry about the pace.

So obviously it's less of an intense workout, with nothing else changed but the listening.

After several weeks of listening to 40wpm code files, and today happening to hear the 4pm W1AW 35wpm code practice on the sir, I noticed that I got every word of the five minutes maximum speed they send.

So it does do something else mentally too. It used to be I'd miss a word here or there.

jimbino said...

It's recommended not to think while having sex.

Jake said...

Rather than rowing they should have had the participants participate in sex. Bet the brain wouldn’t win. Or would it?

Mark said...

Anyone who has done sports could have told you that thinking too much will degrade your performance. If you are thinking too much about your golf swing -- proper grip, drawback, angle, speed, foot spacing, hip turn, keeping your head down, etc. -- it's quite probable you will top the ball or miss it altogether or hit it out of bounds or do some other humiliating thing in front of the others.

rhhardin said...

Woody ALlen says thinking about baseball fights premature ejaculation.

The trouble is that you can get wrapped up in the baseball game strategy and still be on it when she gets up to shower.

rcocean said...

If you wish to maximize physical effort for a *short* time, mental distraction is the best.

Its why Armies used to have bands, drums, sing/cheer when going into battle. Not to mention rum.

Mark said...

How about they do a study on how doing studies on things that everyone already knows are a fraudulent waste of our money intended only to enrich the "researchers."

rhhardin said...

army drums

Wm. Empson

I should take as an example, for instance ..., these very straightforward and martial words of Dreyden:

The trumpet's loud clangour
Invites us to arms
With shrill notes of anger
And mortal alarms.
The double double double beat
Of the thundering drum
Cries, heark the Foes come;
Charge, charge, 'tis too late to retreat.

(Song for St. Cecilia's Day.)

It is curious on the face of it that one should represent, in a mood of such heroic simplicity, a reckless excitement, a feverish and exalted eagerness for battle, by saying (in the most promenent part of the stanza from the point of view of final effect) that we can't get out of the battle now and must go through with it as best we can. Yet that is what has happened, and it is not a cynical by-blow on the part of Dryden; the last line is entirely rousing and single-hearted. Evidently the thought is that it is no good running away is an important ingredient of military enthusiasm; at any rate in the form of consciousness of unity with comrades, who ought to be encouraged not to retreat (even if they are not going to, they cannot have not thought of it, so that this encouragement is a sort of recognition of their merits), and of consciousness of the terror one should be exciting in the foe; so that all elements of the affair, including terror, must be part of the judgment of the most normally heroic mind, and that, since it is too late for him to retreat, the Lord has delivered him into your hands. Horses, in a way very like this, display mettle by a continual expression of timidity.

(Wm. Empson, 7 Types of Ambiguity, p.198)

rehajm said...

Be the ball, Danny.

pacwest said...

I guess this would be akin to being in 'the zone'.

Tarrou said...

Low effort like walking or jogging can be enhanced by distraction.

Serious weightlifting, where you are pushing the limits of what your body can do, requires a sort of zen state to hit maximums. Focus, concentration, blank mind.

Big Mike said...

So after this time men’s sana in corpore sano isn’t true?

Michael K said...

Insty says that's why they have CNN on in gyms.

Hari said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hari said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jwl said...

This sounds like what Daniel Kahneman discusses in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow - humans have instinctive system 1 and thoughtful system 2 and we can't use both systems at same time.

Titus said...

I have been going to the gym twice a day now. The clumber passed and I don't want to go home after work....sigh. I used to just work out during my lunch.

So I go at lunch for 2 hours and after work for 2 hours. I take Saturday off. My body is fierce right now. Pecs perky; bis bionic; tris tremendous; glutes glorious; shoulders sublime; back beautiful. I feel terrific!

I am ready to grind tonight!

Have a super weekend fellow republicans!

Hari said...

There is a monitor on the rower that provides feedback on strokes per minute, split times, power output, etc. Any serious rower is monitoring this information and making constant adjustments.

A good rower is basically playing a video game to make sure he doesn't 'run out of gas' before he completes the distance and doesn't finish with 'anything left in the tank.'

For a serious rower, taking away the monitor results much lower power output over the row. Having someone reading and memorizing words prevents them from doing the real brain work of monitoring their performance and adjusting in real time based on the information provided by the monitor.

This experiment denies the rower the opportunity to analyze the task at hand. It's as stupid a saying that a batter who is solving a problem posted on the scoreboard performs poorly. Of course he does, because he can't monitor what the pitcher is doing and adjust accordingly.

Ann Althouse said...

Sorry to hear about your dog, Titus.

Ignorance is Bliss said...

If you intensely think at the same time as you intensely exercise, your performance in both thinking and moving can worsen.

By neither thinking nor exercising, I should be able to maximize my performance of each.

traditionalguy said...

Weight lifters into body building like mirrored walls so the can see their muscles flex dreaming of impressing people. But thinking always helps athletes because of boundaries and rules of the game. But does this apply to female athletes? That is the tabu question.

Henry said...

But what about babies that listen to classical music while rowing and blinking at mother figures?

Henry said...

What if you intensely think while someone intensely assaults you?

Like this?

James said...

The great post neo-deconstructionist western philosopher Yogi Berra addressed this years ago "You can't hit and think at the same time."

Howard said...

Academic peer reviewed bogus bullshit. The study tells us nothing about human evolution. Cavemen didn't work their noodles memorizing the written word because not invented yet. Also, word-play is not conducive to survival in the bush. The primary evolutionary brain activity is awareness of sensual input and quickly analyzing and adjusting physical performance based on pattern recognition, previous experience in real time.

The article was written at an elementary school level.

More wisdom from the Yogi: "Baseball is 90 per cent mental. The other half is physical."

Big Mike said...

I just realized that autocorrect stuck an apostrophe into mens. Autocorrect needs to learn Latin.

Zach said...

Never trust a small study which is only publishable because they got the answer they did. P-hacking is endemic.

HoodlumDoodlum said...

Da Mystery of Chessboxing

Ty said...

The biggest flaw of course is equating memorization with thinking. Those are two very different things.

Jonathan Graehl said...

Feats of fitness (as opposed to routine jogs) require conscious supervision.
Brains use a significant amount of energy. Typically 20% of total expenditure.
Advanced athletes have *very* efficient mental computers for their sports skills. An important part of learning is pruning away the inessential to reach the same performance at lower energy cost. Sleep may help.
Top-ranked comments are usually overconfident.
Supposedly, boring exercise burns fewer calories. I'm sure that study had problems, too.

Bruce Hayden said...

"Brains use a significant amount of energy. Typically 20% of total expenditure."

It isn't just that our brains use a significant amount of energy, but also that they have top priority for such. One of our weaknesses is that our brain cells pretty much don't regrow and renew, like the cells in most of the rest of our bodies. So starving brain cells of needed nutrients (including Oxygen, of course) can do permanent damage to our brains.

Bruce Hayden said...

Blogger Mark said...
"Anyone who has done sports could have told you that thinking too much will degrade your performance. If you are thinking too much about your golf swing -- proper grip, drawback, angle, speed, foot spacing, hip turn, keeping your head down, etc. -- it's quite probable you will top the ball or miss it altogether or hit it out of bounds or do some other humiliating thing in front of the others."

Maybe, but the reality is that you do need to concentrate on specific parts of your actions in order to improve them. I think that maybe the thing is that once you get to a certain level of competence, you can put the rest of your actions on automatic and concentrate on the one aspect, without impacting the rest. For me, with skiing, the first season after I had switched to a shaped ski technique, where you carve throughout the turns, instead of the skidding (and even hopping) that we used to do, I had the problem that concentrating on a part of the turns, maybe initiation, pole plant, or body position too much would screw up the rest of the turn. But, ultimately, I developed muscle memory, and my body knew what to do when I wasn't thinking about doing it, so I could safely work on just one aspect, such as making sure I initiated a turn with my downhill little toe. That sort of thing.

I have been skiing now for nearing 60 years, and some seasons I have skied quite a bit - that first season on shaped skies, I skied maybe 60 days, and have several > 100 day years in my misspent youth. Nowhere near, of course, some people I know - One of my brothers has probably been in the > 75 day range for at least the last 30 years. Unfortunately, for me, my partner is a self proclaimed "desert rat", who has never tolerated cold well. Four recent winters in CO were hard on her, so we are now back in AZ for winters, several hours from the nearest marginal ski area (after spending years within 15 minutes of a fairly large one in CO). I contrast my skiing with my latest hobby, shooting, where I don't yet have the deep muscle memory and brain training. Last fall, shooting 2-3 times a week, I was getting to the point where a lot of stuff was becoming automatic. But we moved to AZ, bought a new house, and spent the spring cash strapped and too busy to shoot. This summer in MT, I was getting out every other week, and found myself going back to basics too much, where concentrating on one thing caused something else to suffer. And it would often take 3-4 magazines before I started shooting decently, when last fall, I could do it within 2-3 rounds. I have a lot of work ahead of me here to get anywhere near where I was with skiing.

tim maguire said...

The first thing that came to mind is, of course they aren't as physically intense, their brains were doing something else and didn't notice when effort flagged. But as many here point out, heavy thinking can improve endurance by distracting you from fatigue.

Expat(ish) said...

@Tarrou - precisely. I've recently pushed my max back up just above 300 on the bench, but at my age I have to be ready and "in the mood" to lift the weight. In my 30's and even 40's I could push myself and get there, now it's just something in my brain that I can't always get to.

Music really helps me, but books cripple me.

-XC