Athletes may soon find a very good reason to get their geek on by wearing Google Glass or other smart glasses as sportswear. New research suggests that subliminal cues shown on visual displays can give a significant boost to human performance during endurance exercises.
The small study by researchers at Kent University and Bangor University in the UK may be the first to show that subliminal visual cues—words, pictures, and symbols—can have have an impact on human performance during exercise. Study participants saw the words or small faces used to “prime” their performance appear on a digital screen for less than 0.02 seconds with masking visuals that prevented them from consciously identifying the cues, according to a press release.
One of the study’s experiments showed happy or sad faces to 13 athletes cycling to the point of exhaustion. Those athletes who were exposed to the happy faces ended up cycling almost three minutes longer on average than those exposed to the sad faces.
A second experiment found that “action” words could also prime athletes for better performance compared with “inaction” words on a similar endurance test—an increase in endurance time of six minutes and 39 seconds. Unlike the first experiment, the second experiment used a single subject design that had each individual serve as his or her own control. Full details appear in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.
The intriguing results should probably be taken with a grain of salt considering the small sample size. But if the study’s findings holds up in future research, they could encourage a new form of performance boosting during endurance competitions, training or exercise—especially with the growing availability of wearable displays such as Google Glass and other smart glasses. (It’s not clear whether the International Olympic Committee would smile so kindly on such gear.)
Some companies such as Recon Instruments have already built businesses by selling high-tech, augmented reality goggles to athletes involved in certain sports such as skiing. Such smart goggles or glasses may become more widespread in the near future if they can also promise subliminal help in squeezing out some additional athletic performance.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.