A neuroscientist walks into a boxing ring…
Hannah Doyle PhD’26 is used to people’s surprise that a “kind of nerdy” PhD student would love to box. “People assume you have to be a musclehead,” says the petite neuroscientist with a fighting weight of 119 pounds.
Doyle uses fMRI to study how we process sequences, like the series of actions to make a pot of coffee, and how that might differ in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“When you have an imposed structure on something, how much of those actions that you then do are on autopilot?” She thinks having some unconscious structure lets us navigate a sequence more efficiently—like throwing a combination of punches.
“Turning off my brain when I get in the ring for a fight helps me just focus on the muscle memory … and not having to think through each individual step that I’m doing, but more about the goal of what I’m trying to accomplish, which is hitting someone in the face,” she says.
Doyle, who grew up in Milwaukee, started boxing for fitness; she didn’t consider sparring until her trainer encouraged her to give it a try two years ago.
“I just bit the bullet,” she says, “and I did really like it.” She started competing last summer and, so far, has won most of her bouts, including a championship.
While the brain scientist acknowledges the risks of her sport, she wants people to understand the physical and mental health benefits too.
“I only have one life,” Doyle says, “so I’m going to do it.”
No one knows how our brains keep track of sequences, Doyle says. “I think it’s probably a mix between habitual motor sequence”—muscle memory—and “abstract cognitive sequences.”
After moving to Providence during the pandemic, the gym Doyle found in North Attleboro, MA, was one of her only social outlets. “I was very lonely,” she recalls.
IN HER CORNER
Doyle says her dad loves watching boxing, but her mom, a physician, “doesn’t approve” of her hobby: “She doesn’t like that the goal is to get hit in the head.”
SHE LIKES TO MOVE IT
Doyle goes to the boxing gym nearly every day, and runs and lifts weights as well. “If I’m just sitting and working all day, I get very fidgety and kind of sad,” she says.
EYE OF THE TIGER
Thanks to boxing, Doyle says she’s a more disciplined PhD student, better able to manage her time “and persevere when I really don’t feel like doing it.”