Oleksandr Bondarchuk. Sumo, Sport series, 2021 / Facebook, «Sil-Sol»
Physical activity affects a person’s mental abilities and plays a crucial role in the development of intelligence. This non-obvious truth was known in Ancient Greece. In the 20th century, scientists rediscovered it: training can improve memory and concentration.
STEREOTYPES OF MASS CULTURE
One of the persistent misconceptions of mass culture is the stereotype that physically developed people are not mentally bright. This is usually proved by the mental and linguistic abilities of some athletes. The same stereotype contrasts the «dumb jock» with the image of a «nerd» who is intellectually developed but physically weak. This cliché is so actively exploited by the cinema that it has become an unshakable fact for the masses.
However, from a scientific point of view, this is nothing more than a myth, which is not only not confirmed but directly refuted by science. It is also refuted by such cinematic «big men» as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone. Judging by their successes, there is nothing wrong with their muscles or their brains.
AN ANCIENT GREEK PERFECTION
The connection between sports and brain activity, which is far from clear to us today, was obvious to the ancient Greeks. Athletes embodied the ideal of comprehensive development and personal perfection, so the most prominent of them were revered almost on a par with the gods. The Olympic Games of Ancient Greece were strikingly different from the modern ones, since, in addition to spectacular and economic, they performed a crucial religious, cultural, political, and social function.
So perhaps that is why Greek culture became an unattainable model for subsequent eras, because sport «pumped up» the mind and spirit of the Hellenes? Sport most fully expressed the «agonistic» (competitive) nature of this culture. In addition to athletes, Plato and Socrates, Diogenes and Heraclitus, Herodotus and Thucydides, Sophocles and Euripides spoke to the audience of the games…
PLATO: PHILOSOPHER AND ATHLETE
The words of the British mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead are well known: «All philosophy is notes in the margins of Plato». However, it is less well known that Plato did not resemble the image of a stereotypical «cabinet scientist». In full accordance with the ancient ideal of a well-rounded personality, he studied with the best teachers of music, literacy, history, and mathematics.
In addition, he was engaged in painting, wrote tragedies, epigrams and praises in honor of Dionysus. When did he have time for all this? On top of that, Plato had been doing gymnastic exercises since childhood under the guidance of the famous athlete Ariston from Argos. According to one version, the nickname Plato was given to the young man Aristocles (the great philosopher’s name was «according to his passport») by Ariston. It was his way of noting his student’s broad chest and strong physique. Plato did not disappoint his teacher; he demonstrated his extraordinary physical strength at the Olympics and was awarded a prize.
MYLON OF CROTON AND ABSOLUTE HAPPINESS
But perhaps the most legendary athlete among the ancient Greeks was another athlete, Milon of Croton. He won the Olympic competition for the first time at the age of 14 and since then has done so many more times, not only at the Olympic Games, but also at the Pythian, Isthmian and Nemian Games.
Milon was directly related to philosophy, as he studied at the famous Pythagorean school. Once he accidentally collapsed a column in this school and held its vaults with his hands until everyone present left the building. Serious physical and general educational training helped Milon play a prominent role in the political and military life of Greece.
According to Solon, the laurel wreath of the winner of the competition gave its owner all the happiness available that only a person can beg from the gods – wisdom, longevity, respect and love. It turns out that Milon of Croton should be considered an absolutely happy man. And this is the kind of person you want to imitate.
THE WAR OF FLESH AND SPIRIT
As we can see, in antiquity there was no opposition between the spiritual and the physical, which in the Middle Ages became a «common place» in the Christian culture of Europe for a long time. However, the idea of the «unreasonableness» of everything physical, which subordinates the mind and spirituality of man, is more typical of the gnostic heresy.
After all, the Apostle Paul said that «our struggle is not against blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of the darkness of this age, against the spirits of wickedness in the heavenly places». As we can see, there is no prohibition of sports or instruction on physical activity here. Even when Emperor Theodosius I banned the Olympic Games in 394 AD, he was not guided by Christian doctrine. It’s just that any autocracy does not accidentally approve the rule «no more than three to gather» as a social norm.
In the eyes of Theodosius, all these gatherings, unauthorized from above, often accompanied by scandals and conflicts, looked suspicious. So they were covered up under the pretext of fighting the remnants of paganism.
THE HIPPOCAMPUS CAN BE «PUMPED UP»
It’s hard to say whether medieval Europeans became smarter, healthier, and more cultured by ignoring the ancient Greek attitude toward the athletic body. In any case, the epithet «Dark Ages» used to describe the Middle Ages makes us doubt it. Modern scientists unequivocally state that exercise has a beneficial effect on the brain, slows down its aging and increases cognitive abilities.
The fact is that even at a relatively young age, people use only 1% of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning, memory, thinking, and information processing speed. What can we say about the elderly?
However, when neurophysiologists discovered that the number of brain cells in humans does not remain constant throughout life, they wondered where new neurons come from in the hippocampus. And then they discovered a surprising fact: regular exercise stimulates the process of neurogenesis in the hippocampus.
The term «motor intelligence» was coined in the mid-20th century by the American physiotherapist Glenn Doman. He was the first to establish the connection between motor competence and mental development. Thus, the ancient Greeks, consciously or unconsciously, found the perfect formula for moving philosophy, technology, and art forward.
It goes without saying that sport has a positive effect on motor skills, which is of great importance for mental, psychic, and emotional development. However, physical exercises have a positive impact not only on the parts of the brain responsible exclusively for motor functions, but also on the parts that determine all intellectual processes. They are able to change the brain for the better, increasing neuroplasticity not only in the short term but also in the long term.
During a person’s life, brain cells die constantly, and the process of replacing them with new ones slows down with age. The situation can be remedied with the help of physical activity and sports. As early as 1975, studies showed that older people who play tennis or badminton perform better on cognitive tests than their peers who are indifferent to physical activity.
To become smarter and prevent age-related changes, you don’t have to strain your brain by solving complex problems. It is enough to go for a quick walk, tennis, swimming, or cycling three times a week. Even without leaving your home, you can practice interval high-intensity workouts that combine squats, push-ups, jumps, etc. A physically active lifestyle is especially important for people over 40.
Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin have established a clear link between regular cardio training and cognitive abilities in middle-aged people. They compared the performance of a group that performed aerobic and strength exercises 7 hours a week with a group that spent no more than 1 hour a week training.
The first group had better memory, and the brain was better supplied with blood and oxygen. From this, the researchers concluded that a positive effect on the cardiovascular system, in turn, affects cognitive abilities.
Physical activity becomes even more important for people over 60. American scientists conducted an experiment with 100,000 people in this age group who wore accelerometers for a long time. It was found that the risk of dementia is reduced in older people who move at least 10 hours a day. It is clear that an elderly person cannot always get on a bike or go to the gym. Sometimes it is enough to just move.
On average, 3,967 steps per day can reduce the likelihood of death from any cause and reduce the risk of dementia by 25%, and starting with 2,337 steps, the risk of heart disease is significantly reduced. Moreover, the risk of death is reduced by 15% with each subsequent increase of 1000 steps.
Optimal for mental and physical health are 9,800 steps per day, which reduce the risk of dementia by 50%. At the same time, the most acceptable pace is 112 steps per minute, taken within half an hour. In this case, this figure increases to 62%.