This Is Your Brain on Ping Pong

Science explores the potential benefits of playing table tennis.

ByABC News
January 20, 2011, 12:34 PM

Jan. 20, 2011— -- Oscar-winning actress Susan Sarandon, puts on a good front.

"I have a paddle and I have a paddle case, which makes me look very professional," she confessed to a crowd at New York's American Museum of Natural History. "But, in fact, I suck."

Sarandon admits that despite co-owning the table tennis franchise, SPiN, her game is not for show. But according to one New York professor, Sarandon could be doing more than just having a little fun with friends.

"In ping pong, we have enhanced motor functions, enhanced strategy functions and enhanced long-term memory functions," explained Dr. Wendy Suzuki, professor of neuroscience and psychology at New York University.

According to Suzuki, table tennis works parts of the brain that are responsible for movement, fine motor skills and strategy -- areas that could be growing stronger with each match. While scientists have yet to study the brain activity of ping pong players, Suzuki believes the game enhances brain function unlike any other sport.

Wednesday night, researchers at The American Museum of Natural History invited Sarandon, Suzuki and a panel of table tennis enthusiasts to become part of their latest exhibition, "Brain: The Inside Story. "

For one night under the iconic blue whale, high above the museum floor, visitors listened to the science behind one of America's favorite basement pastimes. While the ping pong discussion was limited to one night, the brain exhibition continues through the summer.

"Table tennis is the number one brain sport, so we figured this was a great way to get people interested in the brain because a lot of people play table tennis," explained Rob DeSalle, curator for the Museum.

Holding a human brain to get players' attentions, Suzuki pointed out specific areas that are stimulated by playing table tennis.

According to Suzuki, there are three major areas affected by this high-speed game. The fine motor control and exquisite hand-eye coordination involved with dodging and diving for the ball engages and enhances the primary motor cortex and cerebellum, areas responsible for arm and hand movement.

Ping Pong, Like Chess, Involves Strategy

Secondly, by anticipating an opponent's shot, a player uses the prefrontal cortex for strategic planning. Lastly, the aerobic exercise from the physical activity of the game stimulates the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is responsible for allowing us to form and retain long-term facts and events.

"There's a lot of strategy and the area that gets enhanced is the prefrontal cortex, critical not only in ping pong, but also in chess," said Suzuki.

That could explain why fellow panelist, Will Shortz, calls ping pong, "chess on steroids." Since 1993, Shortz has been the man responsible for deciding just how much strategy is needed to solve crossword puzzles for The New York Times.

A self-confessed table tennis addict and puzzle editor, Shortz says the key to both of his favorite activities is strategy.

"Crosswords and table tennis go great together, they're both mind sports," he said.