The Brain by Carl Zimmer
When Derek Jeter scoops up a ground ball and makes the
double play, his body is hard at work, but his brain is actually
taking it easy. That is the true payoff of years of practice.
The qualities that set a great athlete apart from the rest of us lie not just in the muscles and the lungs but also between the ears. That’s because athletes need to make complicated
decisions in a ;ash. One of the most spectacular examples of the
athletic brain operating at top speed came in 2001, when the Yankees were in an American League playoff game with the Oakland
Athletics. Shortstop Derek Jeter managed to grab an errant throw
coming in from right ;eld and then gently tossed the ball to catcher
Jorge Posada, who tagged the base runner at home plate. Jeter’s
quick decision saved the game—and the series—for the Yankees.
To make the play, Jeter had to master both conscious decisions,
such as whether to intercept the throw, and unconscious ones.
These are the kinds of unthinking thoughts he must make in every
second of every game: how much weight to put on a foot, how fast
to rotate his wrist as he releases a ball, and so on.
In recent years neuroscientists have begun to catalog some
fascinating differences between average brains and the brains of
great athletes. By understanding what goes on in athletic heads,
researchers hope to understand more about the workings of all
brains—those of sports legends and couch potatoes alike.
As Jeter’s example shows, an athlete’s actions are much more
than a set of automatic responses; they are part of a dynamic strategy to deal with an ever-changing mix of intricate challenges. Even
a sport as seemingly straightforward as pistol shooting is surprisingly complex. A marksman just points his weapon and ;res, and
yet each shot calls for many rapid decisions, such as how much to
bend the elbow and how tightly to contract the shoulder muscles.
Since the shooter doesn’t have
perfect control over his body, a
slight wobble in one part of the
arm may require many quick
adjustments in other parts. Each
time he raises his gun, he has to
make a new calculation of what
movements are required for an
accurate shot, combining previous experience with whatever
variations he is experiencing at
To explain how brains make
these on-the-;y decisions, Reza
Shadmehr of Johns Hopkins
University and John Krakauer of
Columbia University two years
ago reviewed studies in which
the brains of healthy people
and of brain-damaged patients
who have trouble controlling
their movements were scanned.
They found that several regions
of the brain collaborate to make
the computations needed for
detailed motor actions. The
brain begins by setting a goal—pick up the fork, say, or deliver the
tennis serve—and calculates the best course of action to reach
it. As the brain starts issuing commands, it also begins to make
predictions about what sort of sensations should come back from
the body if it achieves the goal. If those predictions don’t match the
actual sensations, the brain then revises its plan to reduce error.
Shadmehr and Krakauer’s work demonstrates that the brain does
not merely issue rigid commands; it also continually updates its
solution to the problem of how to move the body. Athletes may
perform better than the rest of us because their brains can ;nd
better solutions than ours do.
To understand how athletes arrive at these better solutions, other
neuroscientists have run experiments in which athletes and nonathletes perform the same task. This past January Claudio Del
Percio of Sapienza University in Rome and his colleagues reported
the results of a study in which they measured the brain waves
of karate champions and ordinary people, at rest with their eyes
closed, and compared them. The athletes, it turned out, emitted
stronger alpha waves, which indicate a restful state. This ;nding
suggests that an athlete’s brain is like a race car idling in neutral,
ready to spring into action.
Del Percio’s team has also measured brain waves of athletes and
nonathletes in action. In one experiment the researchers observed
pistol shooters as they ;red 120 times. In another experiment Del
Percio had fencers balance on one foot. In both cases the scientists
arrived at the same surprising results: The athletes’ brains were
BARTON SILVERMAN/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX