The earliest known depiction of juggling can be found in an Egyptian tomb painting dating back to 1781 BC, in which a group of female dancers and acrobats are shown pursuing the art with impressive skill.
Those who could perform such feats were viewed with admiration in ancient civilizations like Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and in China they could even single-handedly win battles. Or so the ancient Chinese annals would have us believe, when they claim that the mighty warrior Xiong Yiliao demonstrated such fierce juggling skill that the opposing army had no choice but to flee in terror.
However, in the Middle Ages the great art of juggling was no longer considered worthy of respect. It was frowned upon by the clergy and ridiculed by the nobility, and was deemed unbecoming for anyone but jesters and fools to practice this craft.
Of course, the jester in King Lear was a lot smarter than everyone else anyway, and now we know why. Recent experimentation has revealed that juggling not only improves your reflexes, but it also promotes brain growth.
Changes in the brain
Thanks to Magnetic Resource Imaging (MRI) technology, researchers were able to detect changes in the brain that occurred over the course of an experiment conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford in 2009. MRI is able to produce detailed images of the body through interaction with its magnetic field, and the contrast between various soft tissues shown in these images makes it ideal for scanning the brain.
Researchers divided test subjects into two groups, one of which received regular juggling lessons over a period of six weeks. An MRI scan was performed before and after the six-week training period, and the results revealed significant alterations in brain structure.
Not only had the subjects become better jugglers, but their brains had actually grown during the training process. Furthermore, the growth did not correlate to the level of improvement in their juggling skills, but rather to the amount of time they had spent practicing.
No need to run away and join the circus just yet, though. The researchers aren’t suggesting that juggling is the only thing capable of producing such benefits. In fact, any complex activity that helps to keep the brain active may achieve this end.
Why it matters
Of even greater significance is the realization that the pathways of the brain can be altered at all, let alone by juggling. The research challenges the presumption that brain development ceases after a certain age.
The brain consists of white matter and grey matter, the former comprising the nerve fibers that transmit electrical signals, while the latter contains the neural cell bodies that process information.
It’s known that certain activities can bring about an increase in grey matter. For example, an experiment conducted in 2004 revealed that three months of regular juggling practice resulted in a 3% to 4 % increase in grey matter. The growth began to revert after training ceased, indicating that the practice regime needs to be maintained in order to preserve the benefits.
It’s interesting to note that in this experiment the activity produced a 5% increase in white matter as well, the first time such growth had been demonstrated.
Since MRI scans are an indirect way of procuring brain data, researchers cannot be certain which functions are being affected by the changes, or what the exact nature of those changes are. Is it the shape of the nerve fibers that is being altered? Are the fibers actually increasing in number?
Further experimentation is required to obtain the answers to these questions, but that such activity can affect the white matter at all is by itself a significant discovery. Hopefully, it will be the first step towards the development of improved treatments for diseases that affect the pathways in the brain, such as multiple sclerosis.
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