Articles / General Interest
Brain Games: How the Mind Performs Under Pressure: What neuroscience and psychology can tell us about baseball – and ourselves.), Paul Hond, Columbia Magazine, April 12, 2022
What separates a great baseball player from a good one? The great ones may possess certain physical advantages or undergo intense training regimes (even by professional athlete standards), but if you look at the great players you will notice that they don’t all have the same physical makeup and they come from a wide variety of backgrounds that likely means different approaches to training and routines. They all have one unmistakable trait in common, however: when they show up to play the game, they know how to deliver.
Psychologists, biomedical engineers, and therapists at Columbia University’s Zuckerman Institute have been “probing the secrets of athletic excellence, the integration of mind and body that allowed [great athletes] to succeed. And today, . . . neuroscientists are revealing the mechanics of movement itself, from basic voluntary actions to tasks requiring quick decisions, elaborate coordination, and memory.”
The ability to perform requires the coordination of movement, precision, and prediction. Medical studies have shown how the brain of a baseball player at bat processes a pitch (it registers in the fusiform face area, an area that responds to objects that are important to the observer) and what it takes for a baseball player to not swing at a pitch (it engages the pre-supplementary motor area, which is involved in inhibiting response). These studies, among others, show the impressive amount of control baseball players have over their body. But body control isn’t the thing that makes one great. Self-awareness and confidence operate with control in an interrelated way to help players learn and grow, until they can perform at the highest level.
The article’s author, Paul Hond, explains the science and research by describing Gene Larkin’s 10th inning pinch hit in the seventh game of what many consider the greatest World Series ever played – the 1991 series between the Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves. Punctuating descriptions of science, Hond interjects interview quotes of Larken and other great players.
But when [Larken] stepped into the batter’s box and looked out at the pitcher, Alejandro Peña, something strange happened: Larkin entered a tunnel of calm. “It was just so weird,” he says. “I went from the most nervous person ever to ‘I’ve been in this batter’s box thousands of times.’” The Braves outfielders were playing shallow to cut off the winning run, and Larkin was looking for a first-pitch fastball to send over their heads. . . .
Hond next pivots to the science:
“To understand the brain is to understand action,” says Daniel Wolpert, a neuroscientist at the Zuckerman Institute and a leading authority on motor control. “We tend to think our brain is there for us to perceive the world, but the brain’s most basic function is to move our bodies, whether to evade a threat or to interact with others through speech or gestures. The only way to affect the world is through the control of movement.”
For an athlete trying to hit a ball or shoot a basket, action is complicated by the potential range of our movements: “It’s hard to control things precisely,” Wolpert says. “With two hundred joints and six hundred muscles, we have many degrees of freedom. Every time we try to use our muscles there’s variability.” Wolpert calls this variability “noise” — the inherent inconsistency that prevents us from generating the same exact motion each time we swing a bat or chop a carrot. “Motor noise increases the faster you move. If you do something very slowly, you can do it precisely. If you try to do something quickly — like swing a bat — it adds more variability to the movement.”
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So what really separates the great players from the good ones? Daniel Wolpert, the motor-control expert, believes that part of the answer lies in nature. “I expect that great players have less variability in their motions and better learning algorithms than people like me, and are probably born that way,” he says. “I’ve tried to learn sports, and however much I try, I can’t improve in the way that others do.”
For [Gene] Larkin, who was the first Columbian to make the majors since Lou Gehrig, there’s an X factor in performance that can’t be easily quantified using electrodes or vision tests. “You have to have an inner bravado at home plate and really believe that you can compete with the guy on the mound, no matter how good he is,” he says. “If you don’t, your chance of success is almost zero.”
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Research has shown that during the flow state, the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain associated with complex planning and decision-making — shuts down. “That’s why Larkin, when he got to the plate, entered a flow state,” Colangelo says. “He was prepared: he knew what was being asked of him and what was needed. Once the flow state was triggered, his prefrontal cortex shut off, and when that happens you no longer have self-doubt, inhibition, or fear. You can perform at your highest level without being self-conscious or worried. You radically trust yourself. You can train your brain to do this with repetition and preparation.”
Per the article’s author:
This research into the orchestration of neurons and muscles, the poetry of motion, could not only help us improve our performance at work and at play but also lead to treatments for motor impairments caused by injuries, stroke, and diseases such as Parkinson’s. Unlocking athletic success, and controlled movement generally, is both a brain game and a mind game, a cerebral double-header, and it all begins with that three-pound ball of nerve cells in our skulls.
For lovers of the game of baseball, this article is a must read. And for the truly addicted, there’s also a fun video about the “brain science of baseball.” You can see the video here: Video – the Science of Baseball
The Rhythm of Sleep, Claire Milliken, Northwestern Magazine, Winter, 2022
How much sleep should you get every night? The conventional wisdom is that eight hours should do the trick. But in the past few decades, we’ve learned a lot about the amount and kind of rest the body needs to function at the highest level. Eight hours is a good start, but there’s more to the story here.
Circadian biology is the study of the human body’s multiple internal clocks. These clocks regulate processes and functions in different parts of the body on a 24-hour cycle, including the pancreas, liver, and, most notably, the brain. The central circadian clock, located in the hypothalamus region of the brain, regulates the sleep-wake cycle. However, sleep science and circadian biology were largely separate fields as recently as the mid-1990’s. As the fields became more intertwined, our understanding of the effects of sleep loss and circadian disruption has grown. One strong example: pulling an all-nighter is harmful not only because of sleep deprivation, but because it misaligns your body with your circadian clock.
It is common knowledge that quantity of sleep is important, but quantity of sleep is far less effective if it is not combined with quality of sleep. For instance, waking up in the middle of the night, is associated with later diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease (with no consideration for quantity of sleep). Other issues, such as high blood pressure, ability to cope with psychological stress, and fight-or-flight response can be exacerbated by a combination of short and poor-quality sleep.
Recent sleep research is revealing the relationship between sleep (both the quality and amount of sleep) and a host of medical conditions.
“There’s a lot of experimental work that has shown that even a week of sleeping only four or five hours a night changes your autonomic nervous system,” [research Kristen] Knutson says.
In a national four-site research project called Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA), Knutson and [another researcher, Mercedes] Carnethon linked short sleep and poor-quality sleep to higher blood pressure and a greater increase in blood pressure over five years among non-Hispanic Black and white adults. Being a short sleeper was associated with a buildup of calcium in the coronary arteries and, in men, a thickening of some arteries. All of these, Knutson says, are risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Carnethon acknowledges, though, that sleep and stress have a bidirectional relationship. “Nonrestful sleep is both a cause of stress and a consequence of stress,” she says. “It’s a total feedback loop.”
So too is the connection between poor sleep and our behaviors in response to our stress and our sleep loss: moving less throughout the day, eating less nutritious food, increasing caffeine intake — all of which may affect our risk for disease. “Short and poor-quality sleep can influence the risk of chronic diseases directly, through changes in biological pathways and mechanisms, and indirectly, through changes in the behaviors that you use to cope with nonrestful sleep,” Carnethon says.
Getting a perfect’s night rest every single night isn’t easy or practical for everyone, but there are some new habits one can implement as early as tonight to begin on the path towards ideal rest. First, try to go to bed close to the same time every night. One should also do what they can—whether it be installing black-out curtains or wearing an eye mask—to make their sleeping environment as dark as possible. And together with darkness, the sleeping environment should be quiet. Any excess noise can be drowned out with earplugs, a white-noise machine, or even a fan. Additionally, people who exercise more tend to sleep better. But above all else, just make sure that you are doing what you can to get a good amount of high-quality sleep. Perfection won’t be attainable for every, but even small changes can have significant impacts on long-term health.