Neurons in the Outfield

Scientists and ballplayer discuss the neuroscience of sports

by Ben Mauk

April 29, 2008

On October 3, 1951, New York Giant Bobby Thomson hit arguably the most famous home run in the history of baseball. What was going through his mind just before he fired off the “Shot Heard ’Round the World” to win that year’s pennant against the Brooklyn Dodgers?

“Absolutely nothing.”

Cubs Event, Dana Center, 4-24-08, Thomson - Thumbnail
Bobby Thomson 
Thomson received a roomful of laughs for this admission during a panel discussion April 24 at the Dana Center in Washington, D.C., on the brain science of sports players and fans.

There’s a lot more than “nothing” going on in the brains of focused players, said the two scientists on the panel with Thomson. An athlete’s purported blank slate masks the complex web of memories that makes physical expertise possible.

“When you just rely upon your sensory motor skills, many times, across a range of circumstances, you develop the skill,” said Jordan Grafman, senior investigator at the National Institute for Neurological Disorders and Stroke. By practicing a physical skill such as hitting “the area of the brain [associated with these movements] actually grows, as seen in structural [magnetic resonance imaging],” he said.

“You are going back to experiences that you’ve played in your mind many times before,” said Hillary R. Rodman, associate professor of psychology at Emory University. “In a sense you already have memories you can count on.”

Thomson later made clear that he did have much on his mind in the moments leading into his bottom-of-the-ninth game-winner.

“I start[ed] psyching myself up,” he said. “Things were happening in my head. ‘Give yourself a chance to hit. Wait and watch’ … It was like I was in another world.” And when he made contact on the second pitch, he felt “excitement I had never experienced before.”

Rodman, who teaches a class at Emory called “Science and Myth of Baseball,” acknowledged that “we don’t know what the signature is of this peak experience” of triumph, but researchers do know the human brain systems for experiencing such euphoria in other circumstances.

Similarly, she said, “When you suffer a defeat in a sports game, there are immediate hormonal reactions. And you see those same changes in the fans watching.”

The curious phenomenon of fandom also sparked spirited discussion, especially as it relates to the ever-forgiving Chicago Cubs fan. The Cubs, who have not won a World Series in 100 years, inspired panel moderator (and lifelong fan) Dan Gordon to wonder: “Why do I keep going back to them?”

 “[Outside of sports,] how often would you have an allegiance to a losing enterprise? …If you adopt a sporting team it stays with you,” said Grafman.

“We know that there are parts of the frontal lobe that emit chemicals when you bond. This is the bonding experience in a crowd. Once you have that…it enables loyalty to exist,” said Grafman, who is also a Cubs fan.

“What happens in a fan’s brain when they’re waiting for a win?” he said. “How do they justify it? It requires creative thinking. … It makes you a better thinker.”

Rodman and Grafman both contributed to the book “Your Brain on Cubs: Inside the Heads of Players and Fans,” which Gordon edited. The discussion also touched on superstitions in sports, mirror neurons and the barbs of fans on both sides of the Yankees-Mets divide, as well as those whose brains bear that great New York baseball rivalry: not Yankees-Mets, but Giants-Dodgers.