In mid-May, New York Times contributing writer Zach Schonbrun released a book called The Performance Cortex: How Neuroscience Is Redefining Athletic Genius. The book -- which, as promised, provides an interesting, science-heavy look at the role the brain plays in athletics -- is available just about everywhere and in every possible format.
Recently, Schonbrun took some time to talk to us about the book, how neuroscience is being applied in baseball, and why he can no longer view sports the same way.
What inspired you to write the book?
That's a question that I've been wondering a lot over these last three years as I've been writing a book that I never thought I'd be writing, about neuroscience, given my sports background.
Around 2014, my wife found a little blurb in my Columbia alumni magazine that was about these two neuroscientists who were at Columbia -- they were post-doctoral students at the time. They were doing research, obviously in neuroscience, but they also had this idea to try and bridge out and work with Major League Baseball teams. They were starting to gain some traction, get some interest among teams using their background and knowledge about the brain to try and understand decision making in a professional hitter.
This to me really struck me as something different. I had been somewhat aware of the brain-gaming, cognitive-training work -- the Lumosity stuff that some teams are starting to do. Obviously sports psychology and mindfulness and all that had been around for a while. But using actual neuroscience and a piece of neuroscience equipment, an EEG, to trace when a decision is made by a hitter to swing or not swing in that very short time span of a pitch represented something that was different and unique to me, and it inspired me to really rethink what I thought or knew about skill.
When you can take a hitter -- and it didn't matter what he looked like or what his actual swing even looked like -- and say that his production, his ability came down to a milliseconds of neuron activation inside his brain. Well, I was like, 'What other sports could this be used for? How is the brain responsible for skill in other domains?' And it really set me on this path to trying to understand how does the brain function and contribute to expertise and performance. That's where I am today.
Is baseball the sport that benefits the most from studying the neuroscience aspects?
I do. I think there are two reasons for that.
One, I think baseball has come around to the analytics side of things. Most teams, if not all teams at this point, have bought in to the use of advanced statistics and analytics. I think that what EEG -- at least the way that deCervo is presenting it -- can provide is another set of analytics to use, this being neuro analytics, or brain analytics. I do think teams in baseball -- perhaps more so than let's say, the NFL -- will be more eager to use this new set of data.
But I think also, the other reason -- and this is kind of why that analytics got into baseball in the first place -- is because baseball an easier sport to analyze or break down into digestible data bytes than say basketball or hockey or football, which is a much more dynamic sport. It's much harder to quantify what the skill of a point guard is as he's running a fast break, because there's so many things going on: he's got opponents moving in all sorts of ways, and it's a dynamic environment. Whereas baseball, especially hitting, is very simple. It's a simple interaction: it's go or don't go, swing or don't swing, pitch by pitch by pitch. So it does present itself much more naturally to this type of analysis.
But the idea of using neuroscience to look at decision making -- and really fast, rapid decision making -- I think can be used in other domains. Certainly in sports like tennis, which is another reactionary sport, and even football, how the quarterback makes decisions, or how a lineman jumps off the ball, and so on.
I do think in other sports it can be used, but I think baseball is probably more natural.
What skills other than plate discipline can be improved through these means?
Teams are trying to figure that out right now. It's a very nascent technology and it's new information. When I got started with deCervo, what they were telling teams is, "We're going to give you this new information that we can tell you when a hitter decides to swing or not swing at a pitch, down to the very millisecond. You can do with that information what you want."
You can use it for scouting or screening future players. If you get enough data and if you use EEG on enough players, perhaps you can then figure out what a baseline is for their ability to make decisions. So you can say that a guy who hits .300 generally makes these decision within 350 to 300 milliseconds of the ball being away from home plate. Then you can use that baseline to scout and screen for other players. If they're not making decisions in that timeframe then maybe you don't want to look at him. That's a little harsh, but I think it could be another metric used in scouting and screening.
The other way that teams could potentially use it is for training and improvement. It's still a little early to say what exactly that can be used for, but it's just another piece of information that teams and players never had before. It's like if you can say to a guy that he's clearly deciding much more quickly and efficiently on a fastball than a curveball, even though his swing might not show that, or he might not necessarily consciously feel that way, that metric might tell coaches to give him more curveballs in training and to be able to respond more accurately to curveballs and so on.
I think teams are still trying to understand and figure out which avenue to go, whether it's the scouting or the training, or perhaps both.
Should players be concerned giving teams access to their neurological information?
I don't know. First of all, the players I was around while they were doing this stuff -- they were very young, these were the lowest level prospects of the organization. I think they were willing to do anything that the team wanted them to do, probably feeling like they had no other recourse. This is their first entry point into Major League Baseball, so if this team wants me to put this EEG headcap on, I'll do it.
But when you are talking about eventually getting to the point where a Mike Trout or a Bryce Harper is potentially using an EEG, I think, yeah, there could be some pushback. We have seen some pushback from certain players about just analytics in general. My feeling is that it's information that -- for prospects, let's just say -- this is the sort of information that was probably going to come out eventually in one way or the other.
Decision making in a hitter is so elemental to what they do that using this type of screening method, or using a neuro-imaging device to see how neurons are responding to a pitch ... I feel like if the hitter may have been able to mask that sort of thing with physique and athleticism to some degree, but in Major League Baseball most of these guys -- probably all these guys -- are efficient and able to make decisions in that rapid timeframe anyway.
I think that for a young player who just doesn't seem to be deciding quickly enough on pitches, based on what the EEG is showing, like I said, he may have been able to mask that to this point, but if he was ever going to get to the major leagues, the numbers were going to bear that out, that he wasn't able to decide on those pitches quickly enough.
So, I kind of think it's one of these things where you can't really run and hide from this sort of understanding. The neural contribution to performance is so elemental and integral to everything that we do, that having this technology that can decipher that and delineate what's going on is going to essentially pick you apart anyway if you're not living up to what your physical characteristics might show.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while reporting the book?
My cop-out is much more of a generalized takeaway. That is that I didn't have enough appreciation for the brain and its contribution to any of our movements -- just generally on an everyday basis. Sitting here, reaching for a cup of coffee at the end of my desk, or going outside and walking down the street and avoiding obstacles and making sure I don't walk into oncoming traffic -- it's an incredibly intricate and complex series of processes that the brain needs to be able to handle, whether it through planning, prediction, calculation, and then just getting the signals to the right parts of the body to produce that motor output that we all do so naturally and effectively take for granted.
Extrapolating from there, when you see what an extraordinary athlete is doing in his or her domain, it really is incredible. You know, LeBron James can get on the court and make a behind-the-back pass in traffic and we don't think anything of it. But for his brain to be able to handle that is pretty remarkable.
The example I've been using to kind of illustrate how hard this is is with robotics today. We have done a very good job of creating thinking machines and artificial intelligence that can beat anybody in "Jeopardy" and come up with algorithms that can answer question almost instantaneously, but yet creating a robot that can effectively move with the same dexterity of a five-year-old child ... we have not been able to solve that problem yet. It is a very difficult problem for us to solve, and neuroscientists, I know, they look at these athletes with their mouths agape just wondering how their brains are able to produce the movements that we have long attributed -- falsely, or at least misattributed -- to their physical characteristics.
That for me was the takeaway, and I won't watch sports the same way again.
Many thanks to Schonbrun. Again, you can follow him on Twitter and learn more about The Performance Cortex by clicking here.