Alex Korb Ph.D.

PreFrontal Nudity

Penalty Kicks and The Prefrontal Cortex

What part of the brain misses penalty kicks?

Posted Jul 06, 2010

     Asamoah Gyan of Ghana stepped up to take a penalty kick in the last minute of double overtime against Uruguay on Friday. A goal would win the game, and send his country to the semi-finals of the World Cup for the first time ever. The cameras flashed and the vuvuzelas blared as he stared down the goalkeeper. Taking a deep breath he drove the ball hard and straight. The keeper dove with arms outstretched, and the ball clanged off the crossbar, flying high into the air. Gyan watched it sail away into the crowd before covering his face with his hands, contemplating the enormity of his failure. Ghana lost the ensuing penalty kick face-off and was eliminated.

      Gyan had made that shot thousands of times in his life. Ever since he was a boy he had probably practiced kicking a ball at a particular spot on the alley wall in Accra for hours at a time. Why would he miss it at that crucial point, with the whole world watching and the hopes of a nation resting on him? It is likely that his prefrontal cortex got in the way.

     As I discussed in my last post, the PFC is the pinnacle of brain evolution. It can basically look forward in time, and decide what actions to take. Without using his PFC a young Gyan could not have looked into the future and decided to start training for the World Cup. The PFC is great for long-term goals, to make yourself do something from which you get no immediate benefit: waking up at 6AM to go running, skipping dessert, enduring the tedium of hours and hours of kicking a ball against a wall. However, like wishes on a monkey paw you bought from a gypsy, it comes with a cost.

     While most brain areas live fully present in the moment, the PFC is painfully aware of the consequences of your actions. It has many connections to the emotional areas of the brain, and is thus influenced by the joy of anticipated victory or the agony of foreseen defeat. On the one hand the prefrontal cortex can plan what to wear to the victory parade, and decide which supermodel to bring to which club. On the other hand it can also envision a country devastated by loss, and a future filled with broken dreams. It can make a hell of heaven or a heaven of hell, but it cannot make a penalty kick.

     The part of brain directly responsible for kicking balls is the small central strip on the top called the primary motor cortex (PMC). The PMC sends specific instructions to muscles where to move and how much. It's part of the frontal lobe, but not far forward enough to be pre-frontal. The PMC contains a representation of every muscle in the body. It acts like a voodoo doll: a little poke elicits a twitch from the corresponding area of the body. The PMC gets input from the supplementary motor area (SMA), which lies in front, but not quite prefrontal. The SMA works a little more abstractly, planning specific movements, getting prepared for what to do. The SMA gets input from the PFC. Thus the PFC decides what to do, and then delegates to the SMA and PMC to do it.

     The SMA and PMC and all the unconscious motor areas of the brain (like the basal ganglia and cerebellum) know exactly how to kick a ball into the corner of the goal. It's the same skill they've practiced for thousands and thousands of hours since they were 6 years old. They don't need conscious intervention from the PFC. All the PFC has to do is say where it wants the ball kicked, and how hard. Unfortunately the PFC is distracted by the possibility of lucrative shoe endorsements or perhaps too concerned with breaking the hearts of his teammates. The PFC thinks about kicking the ball to the right, but knows that's maybe what the keeper is expecting. So it thinks about kicking the ball to the left, but knows that the keeper might anticipate that too. It can see all the negative consequences and thus leaves itself without any good options, and also leaves the SMA and PMC without clear instructions. Great athletes are able to silence their PFCs under pressure, and just live in the moment, but even the best can't do it all the time (e.g. Kobe Bryant's terrible game 7 against the Celtics).

     Gyan had an opportunity for glory, but he also (like the rest of us) had a prefrontal cortex capable of getting in the way. Unfortunately for him the part of the brain responsible for kicking the ball doesn't care about winning or trophies or national pride. It doesn't even care about disgrace or embarrassment. It just kicks the ball. So how can you make a penalty kick with the whole world watching, and your whole future sitting at your feet? You just do it. Though that's easier said than done.

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