We’re getting stronger, taller and faster, but are we getting smarter?
Running a four minute mile was supposed to be impossible. Until 1954, most coaches, runners, scientists, and the even world’s top physiologists all declared that humans were physically incapable of a sub 4:00 performance, even given ideal training and race conditions. It was simply too fast.
In 1954 a young medical student named Roger Bannister proved them all wrong. On a windy day in Oxford, England, Bannister ran 1 mile in three minutes and 59.4 seconds. Other athletes soon followed, and within 20 years sub 4:00 performances were practically expected at professional track meets. Today, more than 1400 athletes have run a mile in four minutes or less, including 500 Americans alone. The world record for the event has dropped to a blistering 3:43.13, set by Hicham El Guerrouj in 1999. Now the once indomitable 4:00 barrier is merely the threshold to earning “elite” running status.
Other events and sports have seen similar progressions in record performances over the past century. In 1908 Henry Taylor, another Englishman, established a world record for the 1500m freestyle swim with a time of 22:48.4. At the 2012 London Olympics, China’s Sun Yang set the current record of 14:31.02 – more than 30% faster than Taylor’s mark. That same year, 12 year old Isabella Rongione swam an age-group record of 16:48.12 for the 1500m. Rongione’s time is faster than anyone – male or female – had swum for the event prior to 1966.
The marathon world record has recently garnered significant media attention. Sportswear corporations like Nike and Adidas have poured resources into training elite athletes and developing gear to help runners go faster, longer. Like the mile, the marathon has a clear barrier – two hours flat - that some physiologists have deemed impossible. Nevertheless, in 2017 Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya ran 2:00:23 as part of Nike’s “Breaking 2” project, only falling off the goal 1:59:59 pace in the final six miles of the race. Kipchoge’s time was also about 30% faster than the world record from a century ago.
But humans today aren’t necessarily 30% better that the top athletes of a century ago. Most performance improvements can be attributed to scientific advancements in training, nutrition, hydration, equipment, and pacing strategy.
At the first Olympic games, marathon runners were advised to avoid water at all costs. While it may seem silly today, coaches and organizers back then feared drinking water during exertion could cause stomach distress. Years of lab and field research finally convinced them otherwise, and we now know that even minor dehydration can lead to significant reductions in exercise performance.
There’s no way to tell how much faster Roger Bannister or Henry Taylor could have been with access to the same training knowledge and technology available to all modern athletes.
Today, everyone from hobby joggers to world champions can see real-time feedback on their workouts by using a variety of watches, fitness trackers, apps, and specially designed sensors. Programs like Strava and MapMyRide let cyclists and runners track activities and compare results with both their past self and other athletes. Seeing real evidence that your fitness is improving – moving up the leaderboards, or increasing average speed – can be rewarding, enticing you to continue pushing your endurance limits.
But what if that same kind of immediate, gratifying feedback were available for other aspects of health? What if there was a way to track improvements to your brain health?
These were some of the questions we had in mind during the development of the Brain Gauge. We wanted to give people a tool that could show them how their brain was performing each day, so that they could find better ways to optimize their brain health. By measuring 8 essential components of brain health, Brain Gauge can help you determine which supplements, diet changes, or lifestyle habits have the potential to make you sharper and more resistant to age-related cognitive declines.
It’s a part of human nature to believe we are better off today than in generations past. And with a quick look at the technology developed just in the past decade - the ubiquitous buzzing smartphones and whirring microprocessors – it seems hard to argue that our grandparents had easier lives. Even in an increasingly sedentary society, it seems our strength and athleticism continue to improve, particularly among elite competitors. World records fall every year as athletes perform feats declared physically impossible by the top scientists of the past.
We hope that by providing people with ways to track their brain health, we can start to see radical, widespread improvements in cognitive function. Of course, there aren’t world records for reaction time or time perception, but we’re getting ready to launch a Brain Gauge scoreboard that will display the top 5% of results from our users around the world. We hope that this will motivate people to find new, creative ways to improve their brain’s performance.