Ice skating and the brain

How do master skaters achieve their extraordinary jumps and turns? Brain research finds clues.

Pam Belluck is a neuroscience reporter and figure skating fan.

The recent World Figure Skating Championships produced exciting results, among other things A 19-year-old American landed a quadruple axel And a 40-year-old pair skater who became the oldest woman to win a world figure skating championship. As a neuroscience reporter, I wondered how the brain works as skaters jump, turn and propel themselves at breakneck speeds on the ice. This is what scientists found out:

When most of us step onto an ice rink, the feeling of slipping triggers a chain of brain signals that instruct the body to lean forward to avoid a fall. But repeated training dulls this reflex in skaters like Ilia Malinin, the American who became the first person to land a quadruple axel in competition and whose free skate result was at the 2024 World Championships the highest of all time. In such elite runners, the brain accepts the feeling of slipping and rewires connections in the cerebellum, an area associated with balance.

Brain scans of speed skaters have provided further clues about the cerebellum. Studies have found that parts of the cerebellum are larger in short-track speed skaters than in non-speed skaters, particularly the right side. This is likely because the right side is activated when a speed skater balances on the right foot to go left around corners on the track.

Another brain network helps skaters perform complicated routines. The basal ganglia receive signals from the motor cortex when skaters jump and spin in the air. When skaters practice programs repeatedly, this network organizes movements into blocks and sequences, promoting faster recall and muscle memory. During competitions, this helps skaters maintain their performance even after stumbling or falling.

The activity of this brain network likely helps Nathan Chen, the 2022 Olympic men’s figure skating champion, as he performs a quadruple lutz, one of the most difficult jumps. He starts walking backwards and stretches out his right leg. He pushes off with his right foot, crosses his feet, flies upwards and then spins four times in the air. He lands on his right leg and swings his left leg back to finish.

Figure skaters’ brains suppress the feeling of dizziness after lightning-fast turns. The rotation causes fluid to slosh in the inner ear. For most people, it continues to slosh for a while after the rotation has stopped, causing dizziness because the brain incorrectly assumes the rotation is continuing. Skaters’ brains learn to recognize when the rotation has actually stopped, allowing them to maintain balance.

The way the brain adapts to rotational movements helps enable skaters’ extraordinary turns Michelle Kwan, a five-time world champion known for spinning in both directions without stopping. In one performance, she did a layback spin to the left, followed by a camel spin to the right with her leg extended, then spun left again with a sit spin that evolved into an upright Y-spin.

Photos by Ng Han Guan/Associated Press, Mark R Cristino/EPA-EFE, via Shutterstock and Tingshu Wang Tpx/Reuters.

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