Essay — Your Brain On Baseball

A great op-ed on the mysterious talents of baseball players– replace "baseball" with "acting" and it gets pretty close to some un-articulated truths.

From the Sunday NYTimes

Saturday, March 17, 2007

DAVID BROOKS: Your Brain on Baseball

Vero Beach, Fla.

It's spring training fielding practice, and Jeff Kent, the Dodgers second
baseman, is covering first. A coach rolls the ball out toward the mound. The
pitcher scrambles to pick up the ball. The catcher yells out which base he
should throw to. Kent runs over and catches the ball at first.

Jeff Kent is 39 years old and has been playing professionally for 17 years.
He's probably been doing this same drill since he was 10 years old, because
the practice drills the Little Leaguers do are basically the same drills the
major leaguers do. Why is Jeff Kent, after all these years, still learning
to cover first?

Because the institution of baseball understands how to make the most of the
human brain.

One of the core messages of brain research is that most mental activity
happens in the automatic or unconscious region of the brain. The unconscious
mind is not a swamp of repressed memories and childhood traumas, the way
Freud imagined. It's a set of mental activities that the brain has relegated
beyond awareness for efficiency's sake, so the conscious mind can focus on
other things. In his book, "Strangers to Ourselves," Timothy Wilson of the
University of Virginia notes that the brain can absorb about 11 million
pieces of information a second, of which it can process about 40
consciously. The unconscious brain handles the rest.

The automatic mind generally takes care of things like muscle control. But
it also does more ethereal things. It recognizes patterns and construes
situations, searching for danger, opportunities or the unexpected. It also
shoves certain memories, thoughts, anxieties and emotions up into

Baseball is one of those activities that are performed mostly by the
automatic mind. Professional baseball players have phenomenal automatic

As Jeff Hawkins points out in his book "On Intelligence," it is nearly
impossible to design a computer with a robotic arm that can catch a ball.
The calculations the computer has to make are too complicated to accomplish
in time. Baseball players not only can do that with ease, they can hit a
split-finger fastball besides.

Over the decades, the institution of baseball has figured out how to
instruct the unconscious mind, to make it better at what it does. As we know
the automatic brain only by the behavior it produces, so we can instruct it
only by forcing it to repeat certain actions. Jeff Kent is practicing
covering first after all these years because the patterns of the automatic
brain have to be constantly and repetitively reinforced.

But baseball has accomplished another, more important feat. It has developed
a series of habits and standards of behavior to keep the conscious mind from
interfering with the automatic mind.

Baseball is one of those activities in which the harder you try, the worse
you do. The more a pitcher aims the ball, the wilder he becomes. The more a
batter tenses, the slower and more tentative his muscles become.

Over the generations, baseball people have developed an infinity of tics and
habits to distract and sedate the conscious mind. Managers encourage a
preternaturally calm way of being — especially after failure. In the game I
happened to see here on Tuesday, Detroit Tigers pitcher Nate Robertson threw
poorly, but strutted off the mound as if he'd just slain Achilles. Second
baseman Kevin Hooper waved pathetically at a third struck fastball, but
walked back to the dugout wearing an expression of utter nonchalance.

This sort of body language helps players remain steady amid humiliation, so
they'll do better next time.

Believe me, the people involved in the sport have no theory of the human
mind, but under the pressure of competition, they've come up with a set of
practices that embody a few key truths.

First, habits and etiquette shape the brain. Or as Timothy Wilson puts it,
"One of the most enduring lessons of social psychology is that behavior
change often precedes changes in attitudes and feelings."

And second, there is a certain kind of practical wisdom that is not taught
but is imparted through experience. It consists of a sensitivity to the
contours of how a situation may evolve, which cannot be put into words.

Baseball players are like storm-tossed sailors falling and rising with the
slumps and hot streaks that emanate from inaccessible parts of themselves.
The rest of us rationalists use statistics to try to understand the patterns
of what they do.

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About Lance Baker

An actor and director in Chicago and on the road.

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