Brain likes juggling
by Mirosław Urban, Paweł Fortuna, Piotr Markiewicz
We consider juggling a circus trick. However, a systematic juggling practice allows us to develop our brain, improve concentration and coordination, and helps us to keep a proper body posture.
Every time we drink tea, put on our shoes or run down the stairs, we do not ponder on how complicated the movements performed by our body are. We only start wondering on the precision and perfection of movement when we admire amazing shows delivered by figure skaters, acrobats, or jugglers. Their skills seem impossible for ordinary people, yet it turns out that practically everyone can master them. Moreover, neuropsychological research proves that such seemingly weird and pointless skills are highly beneficial for us.
A team of scientists from the University of Regensburg, led by Bogdan Draganski, carried out an experiment whose results became famous in the world of neuroscience. Researches divided the subjects into two groups – the first group was supposed to learn over a period of there months how to juggle with three balls for at least one minute. The second group did not undergo this sort of training. The researchers systematically scanned brain structures using magnetic resonance imagining in order to compare both groups – they were looking for changes in the grey matter of the brain caused by regular juggling training. After three months, the researches noticed in the brains of the juggling group a significant increase in the volume of the grey matter in the area of the left posterior parietal cortex (area 3) and on both sides in the mid-temporal part of the brain (area 2). These areas specialise among others in processing and storing information on how we perceive objects and anticipate their motion.
The results of the experiment are interesting due to at least two reasons. First of all, they prove that brain development is possible not only during our childhood but also during later phases of our life. Secondly, even seemingly pointless exercises, such as juggling with three balls, can develop brain tissue in a similar manner as weight lifting can develop our muscles. It is obvious that these observations are significant for possibilities of rehabilitation and reconstruction of brain tissue damaged during tragic accidents or diseases.
Rat race and brain abracadabra
The results received by Draganski and his team confirm findings of earlier research into correlations between animal behaviour and developments of their brains. Marian Diamond from the University of California proved that rats living in cages filled with shelves, stairs, and running wheels had a better developed network of interconnections between cells in the visual cortex than rats kept in empty cages. In addition, Carl Cartman, another researcher from the University of California, discovered that brains of rats kept in running wheels produce an increased amount of neurotrophins, which are proteins responsible for differentiation and growth of brain cells and interconnections between neurons. These results suggest that the richness of one’s experience positively stimulates the development of one’s brain.
Brain architecture of juggling
In Draganski’s experiment, changes were observed in the parts of the brain called „advanced perceptive processing” areas – responsible for noticing objects and anticipating their trajectories. A three-month-long training stimulated the development in these areas, which generate a precise motion-space map for a given task. However, these areas are responsible only for a fragment of the brain’s activity which is required for juggling. The extreme complexity of juggling can be well illustrated by the number of brain parts involved in it. In order to coordinate the movement of balls in the air, our brain has to plan positions of the hands, head and whole body. These functions are managed by the prefrontal cortex (area 1). This is the place where the plan of action is created and from where the whole process of juggling is controlled. It is possible thanks to a synthesis of perceptive data (area 2) and information on the position of the body (area 3). The ready plan of movements is then transmitted to premotor cortex (area 4). The responsibilities of this area also include the initial stage of processing of all data necessary for performing any action. Similarly to playing the piano or eating a hamburger, maintaining the movement of three balls in the air requires a complex sequence of movements. The coordination of this sequence is managed by so called the supplementary motor cortex (area 5). Then it is the turn for the “proper juggler”, which is the motor cortex (area 6). Thanks to this part of the brain the whole trick is possible. Also significant roles in the whole process are played by the basal ganglia (area 7) and the cerebellum (area 8). The basal ganglia are mainly responsible for creating the sequence of juggling movements, while the cerebellum allows us to keep our balance during juggling, control motion of eye balls, program the order of movements, and introduce routine into the initially demanding and highly complex action of juggling. If the cerebellum is damaged then a significant delay in catching the balls may be observed – it is connected with difficulties in moving the attention of eyes from one ball to another. The remaining parts of this brain jigsaw are filled in by the brainstem (area 9) and spinal cord (area 10). These areas are responsible for controlling the muscles, which take part in juggling, muscular tension and a proper posture.
Juggling for everyone
Psychological research supports the thesis that juggling is beneficial for hand-eye co-ordination, sense of rhythm, reflexes, and also sense of balance and a proper posture of the body. Therefore, it is not surprising that psychologists increasingly often recommend juggling as a treatment in many dysfunctions. For example, the Dyslexia, Dyspraxia and Attention Disorder (DDAT) centre in Kenilworth, UK, introduced into its therapies various forms of exercises such as catching balls, juggling, and keeping balance on “Rola-Bola”, which is a board placed on a moving tube. Research conducted by Carole Smith, an American PE specialist, suggests that juggling – and resulting from it improvements in eye-hand co-ordination – help to develop writing and reading skills.
Also many teachers in Poland are convinced about positive effects of juggling – they encourage children to get involved in various unusual activities, which are commonly labelled as the circus pedagogy. By learning juggling, acrobatic stunts, clown shows, pantomime and black theatre, children gain awareness of their body, master complex sequences of movements and train concentration.
Juggling is becoming even more popular among adults interested in developing their personal skills. Since the beginning of the 1980s, managers and employees of companies have been learning to juggle at seminars and workshops devoted to personal development, time management and project realisation. In many corporate bodies, such as Bell Labs, Microsoft, Apple Corporation or Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there are active juggling clubs. More and more often juggling skills are seen as obligatory for managerial staff. It is also worth noting that the verb “to juggle” may also mean an ability to cope with several issues simultaneously. Throwing balls may serve therefore a splendid metaphor for realising several projects at once. Just as adding another ball requires a total reorganisation of the movement sequence, in a similar manner introducing new duties forces us to adjust the current plan of action.
Juggling also turned out to be a successful form of reducing the stress level. Juggling introduces into a relaxed state of concentration, during which the mind and the body are active and calm at the same time. Increasing number of doctors and therapists recognises the therapeutic value of juggling. O. Carl Simonton, a doctor and psychooncologist, introduced juggling as a form of relaxation for patients in one of the US hospitals. He considers juggling a great form of therapy, which teaches how to avoid being concerned with trivial matters. However, a mere awareness of beneficial consequences of juggling is not enough to make juggling one of our daily activities at school or work. Apart from a good teacher, clear instruction, determination, and a few minutes of spare time, it is necessary to overcome a prejudice that juggling is only suitable for street conjurers and not for ordinary people. We suggest to substitute it with another prejudice: a well developed brain – that’s too difficult for me. As you can see it will be much easier to get rid of this second conviction. We would like to wish you many successes in your juggling training!
Mirosław Urban is a psychologist and a career advisor. He specialises in introducing modern strategies of improving professional competence of business and education employees and public organisations. For two years he has been professionally involved in juggling. He leads juggling workshops for adults, teenagers and children.
Paweł Fortuna is a psychologist, a research fellow at the Department of Experimental Psychology at the Catholic University of Lublin. He is involved in psychological research on psychology of persuasive communication and analysis mass media messaging. He runs his own consulting company Fortuna & Fortuna. He has been fascinated by juggling for about a year.
Piotr Markiewicz is a philosopher and psychologist, perspective Ph.D at the Department of Experimental Psychology at the Catholic University of Lublin (currently working on Ph.D thesis on representation of chronological order of events). He is interested in cognitive processes from the perspective of neurocognitive science.