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‘Brain Sports’ Are Gaining Momentum

This article originally appeared in The Boston Globe on May 18, 2015.

By Shalini Shankar

The roar of opinion over Tom Brady’s suspension and the New England Patriots’ “Deflategate” punishment serves as a reminder of our intense national interest in physical sports.

But perhaps “brain sports” also are starting to gain some momentum. Recent anecdotal evidence signals a modest cultural shift — more audiences appear willing to take intellectual heft as seriously as muscular definition.

This Wednesday’s premiere of “500 Questions” on ABC television, for example, will feature “the smartest people in the country” aiming to answer intellectual questions in a reality show-inspired format. Get three in a row wrong and it’s goodbye.

“Child Genius,” a reality program on Lifetime that recently concluded its first season, broadcast “Academic Olympiads” in cooperation with American Mensa. The winner, Vanya Shivashankar, received a $100,000 college fund.

A much older intellectual contest for kids, the National Spelling Bee, begins next week. It’s the culmination of months of competition that elite spellers call “bee season” because of the many school and regional bees leading to the national event, which will be broadcast by ESPN from National Harbor, Md.

It may not rise to the level of Malcolm Butler’s goal line interception in the Super Bowl, but there is always plenty of drama at the national bee — collective sorrow when favored spellers are eliminated, mounting excitement as the pool of contestants becomes smaller, and general awe at the performances delivered by young spellers under pressure.

Brain sports is a term used by children and families who take part in academic competitions like the National Spelling Bee. Participants spend countless hours of their childhoods preparing to compete, the same way soccer or basketball players might practice to acquire and improve skills. Just as some young athletes and their families travel over weekends and summers for soccer or Little League, neuro-athletes train and take to the road for spelling bees, math bees, geography bees, and other intellectual contests.

Over the last two years, I have conducted ethnographic research at more than 15 regional and national-level spelling bees. Like someone who might follow Tom Brady or his teammates, I have tracked the careers of elite spellers who are deeply dedicated to their craft. These funny, lively, smart kids are innovative and creative about words — not the rote memorizers people expect.

Like other tweens, neuro-athletes can be misunderstood and marginalized, often resulting in low self-esteem. Brain sports can offer a space to seek social connections and acceptance in an era of bullying and cyberbullying.

Studies show that today’s young people face increasingly high levels of stress with little understanding of how to manage it. They live in a hyper-fast, hyper-connected world. Physical activity is one way to cope — it’s an important stress reliever for anyone. But not all children want to participate in team sports, which — in a society that places great emphasis on such activities — can further feelings of exclusion. For some students, becoming a neuro-athlete offers an opportunity to find like-minded individuals and engage in healthy competition of a different kind. It’s something worth cheering.

- Shalini Shankar is an associate professor of anthropology and Asian-American studies at Northwestern University.

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