Chicago neuroscientist contributes to book on brains and baseball

March 6, 2008

Steven Small, professor of neurology and psychology at the University of Chicago, and colleagues Ana Solodkin and John Milton, are among a group science writers and neuroscientists featured in Your Brain On Cubs: Inside the Heads of Players and Fans, a new book that explores how the brain functions when people participate in sports as athletes, coaches and fans.

Using baseball as the quintessential sport for all three perspectives, the contributors tackle such questions as: How does a player hit a 90-mile-per-hour fastball when he barely has time to visually register it? Why do fans remain devotedly loyal year after year? And what allows them to believe in superstitions, such as a curse?

Other topics investigated in the book include how a ballplayer's brain changes as he gains experience and expertise, why there are a higher percentage of left-handers in the major leagues compared to the general population, and the ethical implications of neurological performance enhancement.

Small's contribution, "Why Did Casey Strike Out: The Neuroscience of Hitting," focuses on 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.

"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."

Although emotions such as fear and anxiety are profoundly familiar to Cubs fans, the pervasive role of the brain in playing and watching baseball may be less apparent. Yet the "very existence of such a thing as sports fandom grows out of the way the brain works," notes Dan Gordon, editor of Your Brain on Cubs.

Gordon asked Small and colleagues to write about their brain research "because it had applications to baseball," he explained. "As a life-long Cubs fans, I also wanted to include a contributor from Chicago, although the University of Chicago is located in White Sox territory."

For more information about Your Brain on Cubs, log on to http://www.dana.org/news/danapressbooks/.

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