October means baseball playoffs, and if you are a baseball fan, excitement is in the air.
But are there any potential brain benefits to following baseball? We often think of the brain as a muscle, and consider crossword puzzles to be the ultimate brain challenge. But what about following a baseball game? While some people might think this is simply a passive form of entertainment, lots of cognitive operations occur before, during and after the game.
Consider following a game on the radio (if you are a Dodgers fan, Vin Scully’s voice may immediately come to mind). We form a mental picture of what is happening. Who is on base, who is up next, and how long the pitcher has been in the game. A lot of visual imagery can be at work (this may be much different than when watching a game on TV). Many people will still remark they enjoy and remember listening to games on the radio, and it evokes strong emotional recall of very remote memories. In a sense, we are holding and accessing a lot of information in working memory. We might be mentally juggling the number of balls and strikes, while also thinking about whether the runner on second base should steal, who is warming up in the bullpen, and even contemplating how much money the pitcher makes per pitch.
For the record, probably the best thing we can do to maintain brain fitness is to exercise. The physical kind, such as walking, has been shown to lead to longer-term benefits in hippocampal volume in older adults. In terms of the mental form of brain exercises, the results are somewhat mixed and often difficult to interpret, although a recent study suggests that there can be long term changes in the brain associated with playing certain types of cognitively-demanding games.
Can following baseball lead to similar brain challenges? If you have been a fan for a long time, you probably have a good knowledge structure regarding how the game is played, perhaps you have played different positions and tried to hit a curveball, and have a team that you regularly follow.
From a personal perspective, I have often spent a great deal of time talking to many older and wiser adults about sports. My 84-year-old father-in-law recites line-ups from the game last night, as well as from the 1954 Cubs. Baseball can also cue many memories from the past, often associated with a rich sense of nostalgia. For example, the Ernie Banks baseball card may be associated with many childhood memories for Cubs fans. These memories spring to life when looking at the card, or when discussing baseball from that era. So what does that say about how the brain ages? Older adults often experience changes in memory, but it may be that certain forms of expertise can combat any general cognitive decline.
There are also many social aspects about discussing sports (did you see the game last night?), given people will often have different perspectives and allegiances to certain teams. In fact, a classic paper in social psychology has shown that people will remember a game differently depending on what team they were cheering for, suggesting that like all memories, we can be biased about what we remember. For more details about how Red Sox and Yankee’s fans accurately or falsely remember the 2004 American League playoff series, see this paper by Kensinger and Schacter (for the record, both researchers in Boston).
While watching baseball on TV is not the best physical workout, there may be a case that following sports involves a lot of mental processing and cognitive operations. We draw on prior knowledge, the rules of the game (semantic memory), and need to constantly update information (the score, who is injured, what player is on a hot streak). Perhaps more importantly, baseball is a game, with uncertain outcomes. Our brains often get excited when it comes to playing games, and especially so if you have personal connections to the teams or outcome. Let’s hope this World Series will be another memorable treat for our brains - I’ll be listening to the games on the radio, while taking a walk…