Soccer goalies’ senses and balancing your beverages

Beep-beep. Flash. Save!

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Decisions, decisions: Soccer goalkeepers have superior sensory skills.

Our senses help us make sense of the world, but sometimes they play tricks on us. The visual signal of someone across the room snapping their fingers reaches your eyes before the event’s sound waves enter your ears. Yet, people perceive these pieces of time-separated sensory information as a single event, says David McGovern, a neuroscientist at Dublin City University.

Sensing the lag between seeing and hearing something can be disorienting, so we often perceive incoming visual and audio information in sync. But is there a limit to the usefulness of this perceptual quirk, such as in the case of soccer goalies, who must make split-second, high-stress decisions? Enter McGovern and former professional soccer goalkeeper Michael Quinn, who decided to study whether high-level soccer goalies process the world differently than the rest of us (Curr. Biol. 2023, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2023.08.050).

McGovern’s team studied the span of time over which the brain groups events together by asking participants how many flashes of light they saw when they heard two beeps. If the beeps happen in a quick enough succession, people believe they see two flashes of light even when they’re shown a single flash. It’s sneaky even to those who know the test well.

“It seems very real that there’s actually two flashes,” McGovern tells Newscripts.

But goalkeepers weren’t tricked. They perceive the illusion less frequently than both control subjects and soccer players who don’t play goalie, McGovern says.

That’s not the only difference between goalies and the rest of us. It’s not typical “to want to throw your body against the ground and put your face in front of people’s boots,” says Rebecca Ruck. She is an associate vice president in process R&D at Merck & Co., but more importantly for this story, she played goalkeeper for nearly 40 years. Goalies must process information quickly and keep a view of the entire pitch while doing so. Ruck credits that big-picture view with helping her lead teams throughout her career.

McGovern wants to study how these differences in sensory integration evolve over time, both in young players before they specialize in one sport or position and as athletes reach higher levels of competition. In other words, are goalies born with these sensory skills, or do they learn them?

McGovern says that, like professional musicians and video game players (and former video producers like this Newscriptster), goalies might also be particularly sensititve to videos with out-of-sync picture and sound. Ruck agrees. “It drives me nuts. I can’t watch anything like that.”

Coffee, booze, and sleep

Caffeine’s stimulant effects can make it tough to fall asleep. Drinking alcohol, a depressant, is associated with less restful sleep.

Two drinks against a white background. A martini in a glass with an olive is on the left, and a cup of coffee on a saucer is on the right.

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A restful pairing? Traders report better sleep on days they consumed both caffeine and alcohol, but experts have doubts.

Research confirms this, says Frank Song, who worked on Wall Street before becoming a PhD candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Washington. But few studies look at what happens to people who ingest both on the same day.

Song had observed the combination’s popularity among traders. So he had 17 of them report the details of their sleep and intake of alcohol and caffeine over 6 weeks. Subjects reported better-than- expected sleep quality and quantity when they used caffeine and alcohol in the same day (PLOS One 2023, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0291675).

The results surprised Song, who expected to see an interactive effect that amplified each substance’s individual negative effects on sleep. But it appeared that the two substances partially mitigated each other’s effects. Song hypothesizes that this is not some magical combination but rather that caffeine induces short-term alertness that can be misconstrued as evidence of better sleep. This perception, he tells Newscripts, “could potentially derail and be a detrimental factor in sleep in the long run.”

As to how much perception parallels reality, well that’s a question that traders—and Newscripts writers—deal with every day.

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