What Makes Great Basketball Players Great? They may use mirror neurons

They may use mirror neurons to gauge the field, study suggests

by Tom Valeo

October 24, 2008

Elite basketball players possess superior strength, stamina and coordination. They also appear to have highly developed mirror neurons that enable them to anticipate the actions of other players, according to Italian researchers.

Such highly skilled players don’t merely observe other players and consult a mental database of memories to predict what will happen next. They also apparently “feel” in their own muscles the movements of other players, the researchers suggest.

In a paper published recently in Nature Neuroscience, the researchers describe how they had three groups watch videos of a player shooting free throws [see sample videos]. One group consisted of 10 highly skilled basketball players; the second, 10 “expert watchers” (five coaches and five sports journalists); the third, 10 novices with no particular basketball knowledge or skill.

The videos were stopped at various points in the throw, ranging from the very beginning, when the player lifted the ball above his head as he prepared to throw, to the very end, when the ball was almost at the hoop. When the video stopped, participants predicted the fate of the shot by pressing a button for “in,” “out” or “I don’t know.”

The performance of all participants improved the longer the video ran, with correct predictions for everyone approaching 100 percent for the longest clip, which was stopped just as the ball reached the hoop.

However, overall, the elite athletes made correct predictions nearly 67 percent of the time, compared with 44 percent for the expert watchers and 40 percent for the novices. The athletes also were far better at predicting the outcome when the video was stopped early in the shot.

These results led the researchers to conclude that the elite athletes, in addition to watching the ball, also base their predictions on the body “kinematics” of the shooter (his physical motion) as he attempts the free throw.

“We believe that action anticipation is outstandingly developed in team sports such as basketball,” said the study’s lead author, Salvatore M. Aglioti of Sapienza University in Rome. “We were not surprised that mirroring is involved in sports. What surprised us somewhat was that mirror systems are not just for imitation, but for predicting future actions.”

Watching evokes muscle response

Mirror neurons were identified more than a decade ago by Giacomo Rizzolatti of the University of Parma. By placing electrodes in the frontal cortex of macaque monkeys, Rizzolatti detected neurons that fired not just when the monkey reached for food, but also when the monkey watched another monkey reach for food. These neurons appeared to “mirror” the actions of others.

Electrodes have never been implanted in the brain of a human to verify the presence of mirror neurons, but transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) has been used to intensify signals sent from the brain to certain muscles, where they can be detected by recording the size of the reaction, or motor-evoked potential, in the muscles.

The recordings showed that the muscles in the hand and forearm of the basketball players responded to the video of a player shooting free throws, but not to the static image or the video of the soccer player attempting a goal. The novices showed no hand and forearm muscle response, and the expert watchers, including coaches who used to play basketball themselves, showed only a small response.

The novices and expert watchers seemed to focus primarily on the movement of the ball in making their predictions, while the athletes apparently responded as well to the body movements of the shooter, the researchers suggested.

Luciano Fadiga, one of the co-authors of the seminal paper on mirror neurons that Rizzolatti published in 1996 in the journal Brain, believes this experiment displays mirror neurons at work.

“I think the paper is really interesting because it demonstrates that our mirror-neuron system sees what the eyes cannot see,” Fadiga said.

“In other words, it has the capability to guess and predict the future on the basis of kinematic cues that are not explicitly visible. We live in the future because we are constantly anticipating it.”