New research has found that athletes have a superior ability to rapidly process pictures, and to quickly learn unpredictable and dynamic visual information. This ability appears to give them the edge on the sporting field (or court..or arena).
In a study conducted by Jocelyn Faubert and colleagues from the University of Montreal, 102 professional athletes, 173 amateur athletes and 33 non-athletic students were asked to track and describe a series of abstract moving pictures on a screen. This was repeated 15 times over five days. The task was deliberately neutral and unrelated to sport, so that the results could not be assumed to be related to the athlete's greater familiarity with the tasks.
The professional athletes processed the visual information much faster than the other groups and improved their performance markedly over the five days. The other two groups started similarly, but the amateur athletes soon improved and had a much faster learning speed than the non-athletic students.
The results are a great addition to our understanding of the relationship between sporting prowess (behaviour) and cognition (brain), because previous studies have not found a significant relationship between sporting ability and performance on other cognitive tests.
This study revealed that "[Professional athletes] appear to be able to hyper-focus [on complex visual information] for short periods of time resulting in extraordinary learning functions," according to Jocelyn Faubert. The cognitive requirements for interpreting the visual information parallel situations such as driving, crossing the street and perfoming sport activities. Overall, they are smarter at learning how to interpret the "real world in action".
The study did not explore whether these abilities were innate or acquired through practice. This would be an interesting area for further research.