Monday, January 23, 2006


Jocks vs. Brains

When I was growing up, many around me endorsed the jock / brain dichotomy: one could excel either physically or mentally, and make up for deficiencies in one area by doing well in the other.

To a certain extent, that’s true: people specialize, and we’re all better off because of it. But it’s becoming obvious to me, as I begin to wade into neurobiology, that the idea of brain “strength” and physical health as distinct options is inaccurate. A well-functioning brain requires a fantastic physical coordination of organs (including but not limited to one’s digestive and cardiovascular systems) and a delicate, finely tuned chemical bath. Whenever a stereotypically scrawny, uncoordinated genius thinks of himself as having a lousy body, he is defining “body” rather narrowly.

Anecdotes of geeks with hayfever and other allergies abound. I wonder if there really is a statistical correlation there; if so, one might hypothesize that their brains have evolved ways of accomplishing difficult feats that require special, idiosyncratic chemical conditions.

Also contrary to popular western stereotype, the brain depends for its healthy development on a vital engagement with the world, rather than prolonged studious isolation. I like that; it fits better with my intuition, and its behavioral implications are more fun.

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