Baseball on the brain

We’ve got Giants fever here at Be Amazing Learning. For the first time since relocating to San Francisco in the 50s, the Giants are World Series Champs! In honor of that accomplishment, we devote today’s post to the intersection of baseball and the brain.

Last week, we posted on the role of the prefrontal cortex in fans’ near-religous devotion to their teams. Today, it’s the neuroscience of hitting.

Steven Small, professor of neurology and psychology at the University of Chicago, is a contributor to Your Brain On Cubs: Inside the Heads of Players and Fans. His research examines the batter-pitcher match-up from the point of view of the neural networks that control if, when and how the batter swings the bat. From a U of C Medical Center press release:

“If the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand at 100 miles per hour,” Small said, “it will take it 0.367 seconds to reach home plate–less than the time between successive heart beats. For elite batters, such as the Cubs’ Alfonso Soriano, such extraordinary skill can only be accomplished by figuring out what the pitcher will do before he even releases the ball.”

Small, an expert on the brain imaging of human behavior, uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study how the brain of professional athletes plans complex movements, such as swinging a baseball bat. With fMRI, researchers can peer into the brain while an athlete focuses on a video of a real situation, such as a pitcher preparing (e.g., winding up, gripping the ball and then releasing the pitch. The scanner can identify the various parts of the brain that activate as the batter prepares his swing.

In several related studies, Small has found patterns that are common as people learn a new task and then slowly master that skill through practice. Based on this research, it would be expected for a novice baseball player to have more brain activation when preparing to swing a bat than an expert. Experts require less brain power because their brains become more efficient at that task as they gain proficiency.

Professional athletes, he found, activate only the regions of the brain that are critical to a precise activity, such as swinging the bat. The novice, on the other hand, has to activate several other regions, some tangentially connected to the movement and others linked to the neural foundation of emotion.

“When doing something for the first time,” Small said, “there is a lower ability to concentrate and greater involvement of emotion than after gaining expertise. Adding these factors to the brain’s neural programming, makes it more complex and therefore less efficient.”

Congratulations to the World Champion San Francisco Giants! And thanks for the opportunity to veer slightly off topic in celebration of your accomplishment!

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