Jazz, basketball, and are great athletes geniuses?

By Dan Peterson

Jonah Lehrer at The Frontal Cortex has an interesting piece on the similarities in the types of reactive intelligence exhibited by athletes and jazz musicians. In it, he asks why, culturally, we don’t think of great athletes or improvisiational musicians as geniuses on the same level as mathematicians or symphony composers.

Here’s Lehrer on the neuroscience of basketball players and jazz musicians:

The rebounding experiment went like this: 10 basketball players, 10 coaches and 10 sportswriters, plus a group of complete basketball novices, watched video clips of a player attempting a free throw. (You can watch the videos here.) Not surprisingly, the professional athletes were far better at predicting whether or not the shot would go in. While they got it right more than two-thirds of the time, the non-playing experts (i.e., the coaches and writers) only got it right about 40 percent of the time. The athletes were also far quicker with their guesses, and were able to make accurate predictions about where the ball would end up before it was even airborne. (This suggests that the players were tracking the body movements of the shooter, and not simply making judgments based on the arc of the ball.) The coaches and writers, meanwhile, could only predict a make or miss after the shot, which required an additional 300 milliseconds.

….It turned out that elite athletes, but not coaches and journalists, showed a sharp increase in activity in the motor cortex and their hand muscles in the crucial milliseconds before the ball was released. The scientists argue that this extra activity was due to a “covert simulation of the action,” as the athletes made a complicated series of calculations about the trajectory of the ball based on the form of the shooter. (Every NBA player, apparently, excels at unconscious trigonometry.) But here’s where things get fascinating: This increase in activity only occurred for missed shots. If the shot was going in, then their brains failed to get excited. Of course, this makes perfect sense: Why try to anticipate the bounce of a ball that can’t be rebounded? That’s a waste of mental energy.

The larger point is that even a simple skill like rebounding reflects an astonishing amount of cognitive labor. The reason we don’t notice this labor is because it happens so fast, in the fraction of a fraction of a second before the ball is released. And so we assume that rebounding is an uninteresting task, a physical act in a physical game. But it’s not, which is why the best rebounders aren’t just taller or more physical or better at boxing out – they’re also faster thinkers. This is what separates the Kevin Loves and Kevin Garnetts from everyone else on the court: They know where the ball will end up first.

The same principle applies to jazz. In 2008, the Harvard neuroscientist Aaron Berkowitz and colleagues conducted an investigation of the brain activity underlying musical improv. He brought together thirteen expert pianists and had them improvise various melodies in an fMRI machine. As expected, the act of improv led to a surge of activity in a variety of neural areas, including the premotor cortex and the inferior frontal gyrus. The premotor activity is simply an echo of execution, as the new musical patterns are translated into bodily movements. The inferior frontal gyrus, however, has primarily been investigated for its role in language and the production of speech. Why, then, is it so active when people improvise music? Berkowitz argues that expert musicians invent new melodies by relying on the same mental muscles used to create a sentence; every note is like another word.

While the comparison of what happens in the brains of athletes and musicians doesn’t quite ring true, since the areas of the brain that are lighting up during musical improvisation are ones that we traditionally associate with high-level, cognitive thought, it is interesting to consider the categories of expertise that we tend to associate with native intelligence, and why. I think one of the reasons that we discount the lightning-quick, reactive intelligence of athletes is due to their inability to explain the thought processes behind the brilliant things that they do. We have a desire to hear a genius explain their own genius to us, and a bias towards thinking that intelligence is rooted solely in what we are consciously aware of and can talk about with eloquence.

This may be why we intuitively treat great feats of athleticism as fundamentally different and more freakish than other acts of genius/excellence like musical composition or art or business acumen. The big divergence from artistic or cognitive greatness is that those acts of greatness are what we tend to call ‘creations’, a term that we basically never use with regard to someone playing a great game. An athlete might be great at ‘creating space’, but in the abstract and purpose-driven sense of the word, a great wide receiver does not create a great catch or open-field juke.

This creates an interesting paradox for great athletes, which is that the very act they spend their lives practicing and perfecting–the thing they do best in the whole world–is something that they have precious little conscious access to. The inaccessibility of their expertise is probably why even very intelligent athletes seem to fumble about with platitudes and cliches in post-game interviews. The fact is, they can’t talk about their genius; they don’t have access to it. In fact, studies show that when great athletes actually pay attention to their movements, rather than executing them on autopilot, it has the effect of actively screwing them up.

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