White Matter Matters

Tales from the science trenches

Forget Chess, Meet The Ultimate Brain Challenge

Being at bat should be considered the acme of cognitive performance

We’ve all seen the scenario, two virtuosos facing off in a battle of wits.  Each move in the game requires absolute perfection in cognitive performance, with little room for error.  Neurons are stretched thin with each decision, taxing the very limits of the mind’s performance.  This is a game of minds, played out by masters with seemingly super-human cognitive control, each trying to outwit his opponent in the blink of an eye.

No, this isn’t a game of chess.  It’s baseball and it is perhaps the ultimate game of neural performance.

Confused as to why a sport involving hitting a ball can be considered a game of cognitive performance?  Well allow me to elaborate.

An eternity of thoughts in the blink of an eye

Strategy in baseball can be essentially boiled down to a battle between two players: the pitcher and the batter.  Each player’s brain must make what seems like infinitely complex decisions in less than half a second.  So as not to bore you to death, for right now I’ll limit my exposition to the problem facing the batter, leaving the difficulty of the pitcher’s decisions for another post.

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Let’s say you’re the batter at home plate and the pitcher has just released the ball. At 90 mph (132 feet/second), even a slow fastball takes literally a split second to get between the pitcher’s mound and home plate.  Actually it takes 458ms to be exact.  In that time, your brain has to make three critical decision:

1) Where will the ball be when it reaches home plate?

2) When will it get there?

3) How do I coordinate my arms to get the bat in the right place at the right time?

Okay, you say, So that might not seem like a lot of time, but surely 458ms is plenty of brain-time in order to see, predict and hit the ball.  We make a lot of decisions faster than that.

Well let’s consider some “inefficiencies” that the batter’s brain has to overcome. 

Neuroanatomy of hitting a baseball

A brief (and in no way complete) summary of the steps in neural processing for hitting a baseball.

First, the image of the ball doesn’t even make it to the visual cortex of the brain (the areas that process all the things you see) until 40-80ms after the light first enters the eye. Coherent responses (i.e., computations that lead to a “visual perception”) don't start forming in the visual cortex until more like 100ms. 

This all means that the ball has traveled almost a quarter of the distance to home plate before your brain has effectively “seen” it! It also means that the visual cortex in your brain is registering the image of the ball about 13 feet behind where it actually is in space.

Next the brain has to calculate where it expects the ball to go and decide whether or not to make a swing.  From physiology studies in animals, we know that the motor planning areas of the brain don’t start showing responses indicative of planning movements until ~125-150ms after seeing a cue to start moving.  Taking into account the amount of time it takes to transmit signals down the spine, the absolute fastest a response would start being registered in your muscles is about 200ms.  Which means that even for the fastest of brains, the ball is almost halfway to home plate by the time you’re getting your muscles going!

Now let me reiterate.  This is the fastest possible time that you can make this decision.  Why?  Because these numbers come from studies where the animal did not have to decide whether or not to move.  Having to decide on whether or not to act requires a lot more “neural time.”  But more on that in a moment.

All right, you say, so I still have over half of the pitch to make a decision. But you are forgetting one important thing: the swing. 

From extensive “googling” (when I should have been grading papers) it seems that there isn’t a lot of information about how long it takes to make a ballistic swing.  In the lab, we know it takes about 200ms for a human to execute a ballistic reach, which is a similar movement to swinging, so let’s go with that number.

Okay, now let’s do the math.  We have 458ms (duration of the pitch) – 200ms (simple reaction time) – 200ms (execution of the swing) = 58ms.  That means you have 3/50 of a second to decide where the ball will be, when it will get there, and how to get your bat in the right place at the right time.  Basically, you have 8 feet of ball distance to make all these internal calculations if you have already decided to swing the bat. 

What if you still need to decide whether you want to swing? Well in the lab it can add another 50-100ms (if you’re lucky) to your reaction time in order to make a so-called “go/no-go” decision.  Add on more time if you want to accurately predict the balls trajectory, coordinate the muscles, etc.  This means that, even for a relatively "slow" fastball of 90mph, the ball is safely in the catcher’s mitt before you’ve really gotten into your swing.  And this is for the fastest possible neural processing.

No wonder this is a game where hitting the ball once out of every thee times at bat is considered a phenomenal performance.

Neural performance enhancement

Of course, there are a few tricks that the brain can use to speed things up or give you a little more of an advantage. 

First, the brain is really good at making very quick predictions when it sees moving objects like baseballs.  It can rapidly extrapolate the movement of the ball and predict where it will be ~200ms in the future, saving the batter’s brain a lot of valuable calculation time and allowing for a better prediction of where the ball will end up.  In fact, the batter's brain fools itself into actually seeing the ball where it will be 200ms in the future.

Want prove of this predictive ability?  Consider the really cool visual illusion called the Flash-Lag Illusion.  In this illusion, a stationary object is flashed into view when it is perfectly aligned to the position of a moving object.  Even though they are perfectly aligned, the stationary object will appear to “lag” behind the moving object.

Go go neural prediction!

A second computational hack that our brains have for making fast perceptual decisions is an ultra-fast “breaking” system.  Called the hyperdirect pathway, this little circuit is part of the basal ganglia and is specialized in halting a movement you’ve already decided to make. Basically it is the network that screams “Stop the presses!” to a movement you’re about ready to make.

The hyperdirect pathway is triggered when signals in your frontal lobe (that realize what you’re about to make an error by swinging) send impulses down to an area of the brain called the subthalamic nucleus.  The subthalamic nucleus sits under your thalamus… hence the name.  This little area indirectly puts the breaks on the calculations that the motor cortex is doing through a complex set of fast inhibitory loops.*

What does this little failsafe give you? Well it allows for you to wait up to the last 200ms to stop a planned action.  Which completely changes the game (no pun intended) when it comes to hitting a baseball.

Rather than waiting to process all this complex visual information, breaking down the motion of the ball, it's likely location, etc. and then decide to swing, it is just easier to plan on making that swing before you've even seen the pitch. The batter now has a whole 258ms of time to see the ball and make a decision as to whether or not to cancel the swing.  Put another way, he can watch the first 34 feet of the pitch before having to start his swing.  Thus, his brain is "primed" to go and the only limited factor is how quickly he can put on the breaks when he needs it.

I bet having 258ms to think never seemed like such a luxury before. 

Clash of the titans

According to Wikipedia (what... you thought this was scientific or something), it takes 100-400ms to blink your eye.  Which means that in literally the blink of an eye, the batter’s brain has to make a rapid series of accurate calculations to hit the oncoming ball.  Seriously even if you blink really fast, you’ve lost half of the usable part of the pitch.

Therein lies why I think baseball should be considered as much a sport about brains as it is about brawn.  Sure, the strategy of the game may not be as complex as chess.  The predictive thinking may not extend more than a half a second, rather than seconds or minutes as in chess.  But in the very brief window of time that is the pitch, the fundamental limit to your hitting abilities is as much the speed of your neurons as it is the strength of your muscles.

Kasparov can stare at his board all that he wants, he still wouldn’t be half of the efficient neural processing machine as Andrew McCutchen is at bat!

* For you neuroscience nerds, the subthalamic nucleus excites the globus pallidus, which inhibits the thalamus from sending excitatory signals to the motor cortex and thus stopping the “gating” of the action of corticospinal projections.

Tim Verstynen, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon. He is interested in sensorimotor systems, plasticity, and zombie brains.

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