Your Brain on Cubs
Inside the Heads of Players and Fans

A group of today’s leading science writers and neuroscientists explore here the ways that our brain functions when we participate in sports as fans, athletes, and coaches, taking baseball as the quintessential sport for all three perspectives.

The contributors tackle such questions as: How does a player hit a ninety-mile-per-hour fastball when he barely has time to visually register it? Why do fans remain devotedly loyal year after year? And what allows them to believe in superstitions, such as a curse?

Other topics investigated in the book include how a ballplayer’s brain changes as he gains experience and expertise, why there are a higher percentage of left-handers in the major leagues compared to the general population, and the ethical implications of neurological performance enhancement.

Edited by Dan Gordon, managing editor of Dana Press in Washington, D.C., who edits and oversees periodicals and books for general readers about the brain. A native of Normal, Ill.—the border region between Cubs and Cardinals territory—he has been a Cubs fan since age 6. Having experienced the cycles of hope and disappointment that true fans know all too well, he realized one sunny Saturday afternoon at Wrigley Field that in the context of sports fandom, examining the brain is a natural.

Your Brain on Cubs Table of Contents


1. The Depths of Loyalty: Exploring the Brain of a Die-hard Fan by Jordan Grafman

2. Developing Talent: Expertise and the Brain by Scott Grafton

3. Why Did Casey Strike Out? The Neuroscience of Hitting by John Milton, Ana Solodkin, and Steven L. Small

4. Curses! by Tom Valeo and Lindsay Beyerstein

5. Risks and Asterisks: Neurological Enhancements in Baseball by Bennett Foddy

6. Baseball and Handedness by Kenneth M. Heilman

7. It Isn't Whether You Win or Lose, It's Whether You Win: Agony and Ecstasy in the Brain by Kelli Whitlock Burton and Hillary R. Rodman



“You don't have to be a Cubs fan to enjoy this fascinating look at the role of the ol' melon in both playing and enjoying the Grand Old Game. On the other hand it does help to have a brain.”

—King Kaufman, Sports Columnist,

“Dan Gordon and the many contributors to Your Brain on Cubs have truly accomplished something rare in our society today. That is, combining solid science and intellectual pursuits with fun and games. The two certainly do not have to be mutually exclusive, and in our sports-crazed society, it is desirable, commendable, and entertaining to link intellectual achievement and fun together. Readers of this book will learn much and be entertained.”

—Ben Carson, Sr., M.D., Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery and Professor of Neurological Surgery, Oncology, Plastic Surgery, and Pediatrics, Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions

“Your Brain on Cubs is a home run to deep center field! It illuminates the game from the perspectives of both fans and players.”

—Bruce C. Ladd Jr., Founder, Emil Verban Memorial Society (Chicago Cubs Fan Club of Washington, D.C.)

“It’s about time the Cubs and their fans had their heads examined. This volume explores how baseball looks through the lens of brain science and vice versa. It makes for fun and provocative reading for fans of brains and baseball alike.”

—Carl F. Craver, Philosophy-Neuroscience-Psychology Program, Washington University in St. Louis

“This book inspires me to imagine some kind of boutique neurosurgery to heal my brain, fatigued as it is by my team’s struggles. Who knows what other ideas it might spawn? Your Brain on Cubs is a great read.”

—Aryeh Routtenberg, Ph.D., Departments of Psychology and Neurobiology, Northwestern University, and Department of Physiology, Feinberg School of Medicine

“You do not need to be a Cubs fan to like this book. It has a delightful mix of baseball lore and information about the brain. … These insights are interesting for all of us who try to acquire new skills, and many apply to experts in other skill domains, such as musical performance.”

—Ann M. Graybiel, Ph.D., Walter A. Rosenblith Professor of Neuroscience and Investigator, McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Massachusetts Institute of Technology



From Chapter One:

A fan's dedication to a chronically losing baseball team involves a number of social-cognitive processes that allow him to accept his fate. ... In the case of a losing team, a fan has to be prepared to delay gratification for years, decades, and occasionally a century (the latter case involves handing down the delayed gratification to subsequent generation of family fans, entrusting them to appreciate the long road to the ultimate victory). ... There is some evidence that being in the majority (everyone loves a winner) reduces reflective thinking, whereas being in the minority (rooting for a loser) increases reflection.  Perhaps that reflection is rewarding in itself and helps motivate fans to root for a losing team (in that sense it is the chase that is important rather than the ultimate victory). ... Sitting with friends at the game, hearing or discussing the game with the fans around you, or listening to it on the radio or watching it on TV allows for bonding with others.  Such bonding activates the septum and the subgenual prefrontal cortex, which then release chemicals such as oxytocin that signal the degree of pleasure of the bonding....The prefrontal cortex is also an essential brain region for mediating our notion of self.  For example, watching a baseball team play may activate memories of playing baseball in our youth.  Neuroscientists have identified so-called mirror neurons in our brain that are activated whether we engage in playing a sport or watch others play.

From Chapter Two:

Your child likes to play and is happy with her teammates. But will her talent last more than a season?....This tension between what kids are born with and what they gain from practice is at the core of understanding what it takes to become an expert.  It is also at the center of understanding how neuroscientists approach the question of defining what the brain of an expert looks like and how it might function differently compared to the merely competent....expertise is explained in part by higher cortical efficiency.  The expert uses much less brain activity to do the practiced activity.  The implication is that many years of practice may lead to a neural network that is efficient at using the fewest numbers of synapses to get a behavior accomplished....Even though developing expertise requires lots of practice, does extensive practice guarantee that one will become an expert? Not necessarily....The consequences of smart practice compared to exercise alone are beginning to be found in the brain....There is emerging evidence that too much thinking during practice can actually interfere with learning motor skills that are better left to unconscious control. 

From Chapter Three:

Here we view the batter-pitcher dual from the point of view of the neural networks involved in making the motor program that enable the batter to swing the bat.  We show that there is more to hitting a baseball than meets the eye.....In fact, deciding and planning begin even before the ball leaves the pitcher's hand....What is the nature of the information that the batter uses to make decision about swinging his bat? Recent research emphasizes that athletes in fast-ball sports anticipate where the ball will be based on kinematically relevant source of information.  In baseball, this information is gathered before the ball is thrown: a batter may note the movements the pitcher makes during windup, remember his past experiences with this pitcher, and pick up clues from watching the pitcher face previous batters.  A clear relationship exists between the skill level of the batter and the type of information that is extracted in this pre-swing period.....On order to successfully hit the pitched ball, the hitter's brain must be involved in two tasks: (1) preparing the neuronal program for the movement involved in swinging the bat and (2) interpreting the movement of the pitcher in order to predict where the pitched ball will go.  Although it is quite likely that these two tasks occur simultaneously, we will describe what is know about them separately.  Modern methods of brain imaging, particularly functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), have made it possible to peer inside an athlete's brain while he is preparing to swing a bat.

From Chapter Four:

Cubs fans are well aware of the "Curse of the Billy Goat," which is just one among many supposed curses befalling professional sports teams around the world....In addition, athletes weare lucky socks, avoid unlucky numbers, and engage in other forms of magical thinking intended to give them a competitive edge.   There's just one catch: No scientific evidence exists for these sports-ready superstitions--or othes we are wont to believe....What, then makes our brains liable to accept that these superstitions are real? Science does offer some answers to this question....Cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga's studies in split-brain patients--people who have had the corpus calosum, which connects the brain's hemispheres, severed as a treatment for epilepsy--have provided hard evidence for the idea that the brain must come up with an explanation for everything, and it will make up stories to cope with phenomena that it cannot otherwise account for...Gazzaniga writes that a particular part of the brain's left hemisphere, which he call the interpreter, is responsible fro composing a continuing narrative about our beliefs and how we perceive ourselves.....Some psychologists maintain that even outright superstitions may still produce benefit through one of the brain's most mysterious quirks: the placebo effect. 

From Chapter Five:

The soul of sport is the enhancement of human athletic performance--through practice, through, and through training.  But the story of sport for the past three decades has been a story of performance enhancement using drugs.....Neurological enhancement sounds far-fetched, like something from a science-fiction novel. But human beings have long been ingesting substances that improve their neurological function....Stimulants are perhaps the most obvious type of neurological enhancement that could be used in a skill-based sport such as baseball.  Stimulants, broadly, increase activity in the brain by increasing the availability of neurotransmitters, which in turn increase the rate of brain's functioning as well as other neurologically mediated functions such as heart rate....For a ballplayer, one of the most useful effects of a stimulant is that can reduce the time it takes for him to read and react to a pitch....If a stimulant can shave mere milliseconds off a player's reaction times, this decision interval could be substantially increased....In baseball, ironically, the best example of such a win-win technology is the one medical drug that is currently banned in the major leagues--anabolic steroids.  Steroids can make a batter run faster or make a pitcher throw the ball faster.  But they also can aid players in recovering from injury and training....Neurological enhancements are legal in baseball for the most part but do not help players to recuperate like steroids do.  To assess whether a particular drug is good or bad from a spectator's point of view, we need to know where the value lies for the spectator