If you had to pick a group of researchers who would be interested in hockey, you’d probably first think of dentists, not psychologists. Certainly you wouldn’t consider hockey players an ideal subject pool for mapping the brain’s language pathways, unless you were uniquely interested in the comprehension of French-Canadian slurs.
But hockey players and their brains were perfectly suited for the lab of Sian Beilock, a University of Chicago psychologist looking to study whether experts in an action-based field – such as one involving pucks, sticks and skates – process language differently than those with little experience in the field. Professional and college hockey players, as well as hockey fans and hockey novices, sat in MRI machines while they heard sentences about hockey (“The hockey player knocked down the net.”) or more mundane topics (“The individual closed the book.”). The resulting images revealed that people who play hockey for a living exhibit a unique pattern of brain activation when they hear sentences about their sport, suggesting that experience can shape the way humans comprehend language at its most basic level.
It may not be surprising that people who spend dozens of hours a week practicing slap-shots and fore-checking have a deeper understanding of their sport’s terminology than someone who thinks a hat trick is a Charlie Chaplin bit. But Beilock, an associate professor of psychology at U. of C., said nobody previously had viewed modulation of language pathways as a function of an individual’s motor expertise. In fact, psychologists long considered language and one’s ability to shoot a puck to be unrelated processes in the brain, never sharing information.
“People used to often talk about language as being a very specific cognitive activity in a very specific part of the brain,” Beilock said. “What we’re showing is that people with experience in acting out things they might read, hear or talk about seem to call upon not just traditional language areas when hearing information, but seem to call upon areas involved with acting out things the language depicts.”
One specific brain area highlighted by Beilock’s research is the left dorsal lateral premotor cortex (PMd), a region that psychology graduate student Ian Lyons described as “controlling the controllers.” Primary motor cortex is known to directly control movement – when the primary motor cortex corresponding to a person’s fingers is stimulated (during brain surgery, for instance), their fingers will twitch and move. Premotor cortex is responsible for more complex, learned actions, like checking a Vancouver Canuck into the side boards.
“When you have some sort of sensory input – a sign, a smell – it tells me to do this complex set of actions in this order,” explained Lyons, the lead author on a paper published earlier this month in Brain & Language.
In a behavioral experiment published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last fall, the hockey players, fans and novices were shown pictures of hockey scenes accompanied by a sentence that either matched or didn’t match the image. When asked to choose whether the images matched the words, hockey players and fans unsurprisingly fared better than those without knowledge of the sport. But correlating those behavioral differences with the MRI images allowed the researchers to pinpoint the region responsible for this difference, the left PMd, suggesting that an area of the brain associated with complex action can mediate language comprehension.
“In the brain, the language processing areas are not on their solitary island, as had been previously thought,” Lyons said.
Hockey players showed the strongest PMd activation when they heard sentences about hockey action in the MRI machine, suggesting that the brain’s motor areas go through the motions even when the player is not actually moving. Presumably, Beilock said, the players’ vast amount of rink experience has changed the premotor regions of their brains, making them more sensitive to hockey-related language.
“These are not areas you traditionally think of as supporting language understanding,” Beilock said. “The more hockey experience you have, the better you are able to understand this language, and the reason that’s the case is because you, in a sense, borrow from other brain regions to do that.”
Intriguingly, hockey fans also show strong PMd activation when they hear hockey action sentences – not as robust as the players, but significantly stronger than what is seen in the brains of hockey novices. Presumably, hockey fans are not acting out the moves of their favorite players while they watch the Hawks and the Red Wings in their basement. So the heightened response of premotor areas in fans opens up an intriguing possibility: they may be learning how to do the activity merely by watching it.
“If you have never gardened before but grew up watching a parent as a gardener, presumably you might have a leg up if you suddenly wanted to start gardening,” Lyons said. “In terms of improving the motor skill itself, that’s a really interesting claim, but a controversial one at the moment, the idea that by watching something you can get better at it,” Lyons said.
With a bit more study, such a concept could be applied to improve education. Studies are underway in Beilock’s lab to see whether viewing a demonstration of motions relevant to physics could improve students’ performance on a physics test. Beilock’s lab also plans to look at whether fields of expertise that are not based on physical action, such as math or chess, also produce differences in brain activation when they hear language related to that field.
So while it seems improbable that the next Wayne Gretzky will train by watching NHL games rather than long hours of practice on the ice, a fan conceivably could make their brain resemble Gretzy’s from the comfort of their own couch. And while hockey players are not likely to retire to a career in linguistics, the way they process the terminology of their sport has advanced the puck on understanding the communication between the motor and language regions of the brain.