Don’t Call Them Superpowers

The American goalie who made a record 16 saves in Tuesday’s World Cup match against Belgium also happens to live with Tourette’s syndrome. As Melissa Dahl notes, the neurological disorder may actually help Howard’s goalkeeping abilities:

Kids with Tourette’s have better timing than kids without it. In one study, researchers asked two groups of children — one with Tourette’s and one without — to judge whether two circles were on a computer screen for the same length of time. The kids with Tourette’s were better at the task overall, which could be because their brains have to work harder to suppress their tics, and tic suppression is thought to involve an area of the brain that’s also associated with timing.

People with Tourette’s have more self-control.

In an earlier study, researchers tested cognitive control on people with Tourette’s versus people without, via an eye-movement-tracking experiment. Participants were sometimes told to make speedy eye movements toward a target; other times, the directive would suddenly switch, and they were told to quickly send their gaze away. People with Tourette’s were better at switching back and forth than the people without Tourette’s, and, as with the other experiment, researchers think it may come down to tic suppression.

That doesn’t detract from the accomplishments of a phenom so beloved by America that fans are petitioning to name an airport after him. Indeed, it makes them all the more incredible. But Howard isn’t the first Tourette’s sufferer with incredible sports skills; years ago, Oliver Sacks wrote about a patient who was practically unbeatable at ping-pong:

Sacks cited a study where a control group of “neuro-typicals” and a person with Tourette’s were asked to react as quickly as possible to a situation. The control group proved able to respond two to two and a half times faster than usual and with poor aim. The person with Tourette’s responded five to six times faster than usual and without compromising accuracy. “This is very real, this mixture of speed and accuracy,” Sacks said. “I think it often is part of Tourette’s.”

But another expert is more cautious about making that link:

“The research is not in yet if they can perform at a higher level than can be normally expected,” said Dr. Michael Okun, professor of neurology at the University of Florida at Gainesville and chairman of the Tourette Syndrome Association Medical Advisory Board. Okun has found that other aspects of Tourette’s can prove highly beneficial in a wide range of endeavors. He noted that people with the condition often have obsessive-compulsive tendencies. They repeat tasks over and over with a ritualistic and often perfectionist bent. “Obsessive-compulsive tendencies really help to enhance abilities,” Okun said. “In chess, piano, or when they’re playing goalie for the World Cup team.”

OK, let’s get back to the meme of the week: