Share this article on:

The Neuroscience Behind Sports


doi: 10.1097/01.NT.0000337679.22679.2f

Dr. Koppel is professor of neurology at New York Medical College and chief of neurology at the Metropolitan Hospital Center in New York City.

Your Brain on Cubs — Inside the Heads of Players and Fans | Edited by Dan Gordon | 150 pages | Dana Press 2008

Even a reader with absolutely no interest in baseball will enjoy Your Brain on Cubs — Inside the Heads of Players and Fans, a clever and amusing collection of essays by neurologists and neuroscientists. The book is edited by Cubs fan Dan Gordon, the managing editor at Dana Press, which specializes in publishing books and periodicals about the brain.

From the beginning, the tone is set for a fun and educational series of articles that will appeal to anyone trying to understand why sports play such an important role in the average person's life — including what can be learned about mind-body interactions through the development of athletic skills.

Most chapters offer a peek into both the unique and universal particulars of the childhoods of famous people. For example, neurologist Ken Heilman's chapter “Baseball and Handedness” on the relationship of a baseball player's handedness to hitting ability was my personal favorite. Heilman offers a lively review of research on language dominance and size of the planum temporale of the temporal lobe, as well as the alien hand phenomena in people with a disconnected corpus callosum.

Back to Top | Article Outline


In fact, all the chapters about baseball skills include the latest neuroscience experiments to defend the theories they favor, with interesting stretches from the field to the lab.

In “Why Did Casey Strike Out?” John Milton, Ana Solodkin, and Steven Small describe how neuroimaging supports lessons learned in past centuries from anatomic dissection in patients with deficits after death. For example, functional MRI shows much larger areas of brain activation in novices visualizing a task — such as hitting a golf or cricket ball — than in expert athletes.

In addition to the cingulate, premotor, and supplementary motor areas — occipital and superior parietal areas that are activated in the expert's brain — the novice's brain shows activation in limbic regions such as the amygdale, adding emotion to the task, as well as in the posterior cingulated gyrus, which ties visuomotor activity to memories of body parts used in similar movements in the past. (I always wondered why reviewing tapes of great hitters would be worthwhile rather than actually practicing hitting; this observation could also explain the popularity of instructional books and videos.)

In “Developing Talent,” Dartmouth neuroscientist Scott Grafton uses rich data gained from transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) experiments to explain how practicing any skill leads to expert, or at least improved, functions, especially if done in smarter ways. The chapter explains how people who practice “the hard parts” instead of just repetitively exercising will become great at what they do.

Synaptic plasticity, changes in brain anatomy, and regions of cortical excitability can be studied in many ingenious ways in the lab, which may explain the role practice plays in the work of professionals ranging from musicians and dancers to baseball hitters, pitchers, and even longtime Cubs announcer Harry Caray. Genetics and motivation are also considered, but Grafton concludes that “practice makes perfect” because practicing teaches players how to tune out distractions and avoid panic.

Grafton's discussion on imaging reminded me of another discussion on success and failure in motor learning at extremely skilled levels that I read in the late Chicago neurologist Harold Klawans's book, Why Michael Couldn't Hit: And Other Tales of the Neurology of Sports (W.H. Freeman & Company; 1996). Klawans used visual-evoked potentials to establish that great hitters processed the incoming ball faster, and this neural circuitry had to be “trained” before the adult years — explaining, for example, why it was difficult for Michael Jordan to excel at baseball after years of honing his strength and agility in basketball.



Back to Top | Article Outline


Of course, drug enhancement must be considered in a book like this, and bioethicist Bennett Foddy's “Risks and Asterisks: Neurological Enhancements in Baseball” discusses the use of steroids and stimulants, such as cocaine, metamphetamines, caffeine, and methylphenidate, as well as panic inhibitors (beta blockers).

For example, the Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis described pitching a no-hitter in 1970 while under the influence of LSD: “The ball was small sometimes, the ball was large sometimes, sometimes I saw the catcher, sometimes I didn't.”

The search for an easy way to improve play has evolved to include nootropics (or “smart drugs”) that increase acetylcholine release, among others. Even a fairly science-minded player like my son, a shortstop for his college team, spends a lot of money at Vitamin Shoppe on products he believes will help.

The final essay on the effect of winning for the fan was not as fascinating to me as a neurologist, but it did bring back memories of my internship year in Pittsburgh. That's when I attended my first Major League Baseball game (even though I was born in Cooperstown, NY, home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame). That year I was also “forced” to learn about the Pittsburgh Steelers and other local teams in order to have something to talk about with patients, house staff, and my landlord.

Your Brain on Cubs is one of several books — the late Stephen Jay Gould's Triumph & Tragedy in Mudville: A Lifelong Passion for Baseball (W.W. Norton, 2003) is another — that add depth to the discussions of sports phenomena and prove the universal appeal of sports. And for neurologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, and the layperson alike, these books offer enjoyable venues for explaining advances in neuroscience and psychology. •

©2008 American Academy of Neurology