The Frontal Cortex

Neurofeedback Wins World Cup!

Well, sort of. A well-timed insult by Materazzi also helped. But the WSJ reports today that several members of the Italian team used neurofeedback earlier this year to help hone their powers of concentration:

In February, months before the tournament started, some of Italy’s best soccer players, including a handful who would later play in the Cup, began spending much of their practice time in a small room in Milan furnished with six luxury leather recliners facing a glass wall.

On the other side of the glass Bruno De Michelis, head of the sports science lab for AC Milan, one of the country’s top professional teams, monitored a bank of six computer screens wired to a system made by Thought Technology Ltd., a Canadian company. The screens showing how each player’s brain responded to stressful situations. Some players, the data showed, were nervous about doing mental exercises in front of their teammates, while others either had trouble winding down after a match or winding up before one. In the following weeks, the players spent hours working on these issues through a series of exercises that resembled computer games, with the brain as the joystick.

Mr. De Michelis says a tremendous amount of energy in soccer games goes to waste because players lose concentration during key moments, like penalty kicks. “I call this useless suffering,” he says. “We can’t do magic here, but it can be of some help.”

Having the ability to tune out distractions during competition — known as having a “quiet mind” — is one of the holy grails of sports. Jocks believe that the capacity to have extreme concentration during stressful moments gives you a big edge, whether it’s a basketball player staying focused on the hoop while thousands of fans are waving their arms in the background, or a tennis player learning not to berate himself for a bad shot.

So far, the evidence for neurofeedback is mostly anecdotal. But regardless of whether or not this particular therapy is effective, I hope that medical science increasingly tries to “heal” the brain through behavior modification, and not just pills. After all, the beauty of the mind is that thoughts alter our chemistry too. By learning to control our thoughts, we can literally modulate the neurotransmitters percolating inside our head.