Quirks & Quarks

Great athletes have high performance brains, as well as bodies

Neuroscience is being used as a new way of identifying and evaluating athletic potential.

Neuroscience is being used as a new way of identifying and evaluating athletic potential.

Neuroscience can help identify what is going on in the brain of batters like Josh Donaldson when deciding to swing or not to swing (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

We tend to characterize athletic superstars by their physical attributes like size, speed and strength. But that traditional way thinking is changing. What makes an athlete like basketball's LeBron James, hockey's Sidney Crosby or tennis's Serena Williams really special could be their brain. Researchers are recognizing "athletic intelligence" as a measurable and perhaps predictable trait.

Journalist Zach Schonbrun curiosity about this was piqued when he found out two researchers were using EEG, the technology that measures brain waves, to evaluate Major League Baseball players. His research into the neuroscience of athletic intelligence turned into his new book, The Performance Cortex, How Neuroscience is Redefining Athletic Genius

Bob McDonald spoke with him about "the million dollar brain".

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Bob McDonald: First of all what is athletic genius? How do you define it?

Zach Schonbrun: Well I'll answer your question with another question. Why is it that we watch soccer? Why is it that when the World Cup begins, there's going to be a billion people watching the sport of soccer? I think the reason that we gravitate to a sport like soccer is because of the complexity of the game. And I think this is the same reason why we go to museums and why we appreciate great architecture and we go to concerts and listen to great music.

I think it's because we have a sort of innate or tacit understanding and appreciation of complexity and I think a sport like soccer or basketball or football also falls into that same category.  Yet we tend to think of the performers or the intellectuals who are engineering great buildings or composing great pieces of art, we tend to think of their intelligence and yet we don't often think about the intelligence required to excel in a sport.

I think if you're talking from a neurological perspective, the demands that a sport like soccer or basketball put on the brain in order to compete and excel, there probably shouldn't be any differentiation between that and what is required for something we would traditionally consider for intelligence and so that's in a nutshell what I'm trying to make the case for an athletic genius.

Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James may be an athletic genius (Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press)

BM: OK Well let's take an athlete like LeBron James. How do you see athletic genius in him?

ZS: LeBron James being 6 foot 8 inches and 250 pounds of sheer muscle, those are physical attributes that would certainly auger well to being a basketball player. You don't see many athletes like him walking around.  Certainly he can jump very high and run very fast and make quick movements and all those things that are owed to his his physical prowess. But I think there are so many other things that transpire in a basketball game that we often don't appreciate or we falsely credit to just his physical attributes.

For instance when LeBron James makes a behind the back pass in a game to an open teammate on a fast break, he makes it look so easy and it seems to come so naturally to him that we don't even blink an eye anymore. And yet from a neuroscience perspective the ability for him to predict what his teammate is going to do and predict what his very unpredictable opponent is going to do, gauge where people are going to be and then also compute and process the motor output for him to make that movement is pretty extraordinary if you really think about it, compared to the processing that's required for me to reach for this glass of water sitting in front of me.

So I think the millions of other things that LeBron James does in the course of a basketball game beyond just jumping high and running fast is what is owed to his cognitive advantages, and the genius that he might possess for basketball.

EEG brain scanning apparatus similar to this was used to look for athletic genius (Getty Images)

BM: You talk a lot in the book about some new technology that's available that will help identify the type of neural activity that's suited to hitting a 95 mile-an-hour fastball. Can you tell me about that?

ZS: How I got started on this journey it was because I saw a small article in a Columbia University alumni magazine about these two neuroscientists who were doing research in baseball hitting and they were using a piece of neuro-imaging equipment called EEG. EEG basically records neural activity, and it can do so on a very short time scale. The way they're doing it is they're putting the cap on professional hitters and they're giving them a video simulationand having them decide whether or not to swing or not swing an incoming pitch.

They were able to produce information, data about how quickly a hitter was deciding to swing on a certain pitch, and they found two specific brain regions that were of interest to them particularly in the expert hitters that were not showing up as much in the novices and that was the supplementary motor area. When the expert hitter was deciding not to swing the supplementary motor area seemed to be responding in a way that was not showing up in the novices.

The supplementary motor area, because of its implications in other studies involving motor imagery and inhibition, it seemed to tell the researchers that perhaps these expert hitters, their supplementary motor area were so tuned to what it was expecting and therefore could provide a stronger signal to stop that swing.

It kind of suggested to the researchers that these hitters because they have to respond so quickly in such a short time frame, they are primed to go, they're almost on a hair trigger and they're in a way planning to swing at every single pitch. In fact what's separating them from other players perhaps or at least from the rest of us is their ability to stop their swing and inhibit. It's that decision not to swing that might be more valuable to a great hitter than the decision to swing.

That  information seemed to be useful to teams and so they're continuing to work with Major League Baseball teams today.

BM: Well baseball is a game of statistics so are we going to have cognitive statistics shown on baseball cards one day?

ZS: It could certainly happen. Just like we have a radar gun that shows how fast a pitcher is throwing maybe we'll have a radar gun that is detecting how fast a hitter is deciding. I mean I see no reason why neuroscience would not become prevalent in sports. I think the information that it provides is not only useful but in fact essential to teams who are hoping to avoid more scouting mistakes in trying to understand what it is that makes players great. 

Your brain on sports

BM: Well Baseball scouts will say that a prospect has a million dollar arm. You think they'll be looking more for a million dollar brain in the future?

ZS: Yeah they certainly could. I mean in order for teams to feel confident in making a decision - should I draft or not draft a certain player based on his decision making, I think we're still probably a few years away from that. But with that understanding and with more data being evaluated down the line, certainly there could be a prospect out there who didn't even know he was a prospect.

I don't want to say that giving your kid an EEG assessment in middle school and you think he's going to be a major league player. I don't want to give anybody the wrong impression. But down the road with this technology and with this ability you'll get a better sense of whether or not a prospect or a young athlete is going to be a baseball player based on his ability to decide on swinging at pitches rather than just his physical attributes. I think that's where neuroscience is really going to be the big breakthrough in sports.