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.

Tags:, , , ,

15 Responses to Jazz, basketball, and are great athletes geniuses?

  1. This post seems to get a good ammount of visitors. How do you promote it? It offers a nice unique twist on things. I guess having something real or substantial to post about is the most important thing.

  2. Youre so right. Im there with you. Your weblog is unquestionably worth a read if anybody comes across it. Im lucky I did because now Ive obtained a whole new view of this. I didnt realise that this issue was so important and so universal. You surely put it in perspective for me.

  3. fast cash says:

    Hi there! This is kind of off topic but I need some guidance from an established blog. Is it hard to set up your own blog? I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty quick. I’m thinking about setting up my own but I’m not sure where to begin. Do you have any points or suggestions? Thank you

  4. WheelCovers says:

    Excellent

  5. This was a really extremely superior publish. In theory I’d wish to write like this also – getting time and actual effort to make a wonderful piece of writing… but what can I say… I procrastinate alot and by no means appear to obtain something done.

  6. Kudos for the great piece of writing. I am glad I have taken the time to read this.

  7. Hey there! I know this is kinda off topic but I was wondering which blog platform are you using for this website? I’m getting fed up of WordPress because I’ve had issues with hackers and I’m looking at options for another platform. I would be fantastic if you could point me in the direction of a good platform.

  8. Scott Gist says:

    I enjoy you taking the time to publish this post. It continues to be very helpful to me in fact. Value it.

  9. Reincarnation: everyday living sucks, in which case you die. Then life soaks up again.

  10. Thanks for the new things you have disclosed in your text. One thing I’d like to comment on is that FSBO connections are built as time passes. By introducing yourself to owners the first weekend their FSBO is announced, ahead of masses begin calling on Wednesday, you generate a good interconnection. By mailing them methods, educational components, free accounts, and forms, you become an ally. Through a personal interest in them and their predicament, you make a solid network that, many times, pays off in the event the owners decide to go with a realtor they know along with trust preferably you actually.

  11. Thanks for the new stuff you have disclosed in your writing. One thing I would really like to touch upon is that FSBO interactions are built after some time. By presenting yourself to the owners the first saturday and sunday their FSBO can be announced, prior to the masses start off calling on Wednesday, you develop a good connection. By mailing them resources, educational components, free reports, and forms, you become the ally. By taking a personal affinity for them and also their scenario, you produce a solid relationship that, on many occasions, pays off when the owners decide to go with a real estate agent they know in addition to trust preferably you actually.

  12. Marlin Etier says:

    OSHA has identified that the maximum safe fill capacity for my rear end is a couple of persons with one time–unless When i install hand railing or protection straps. As you have arrived sixth in line to trip my bum today, remember to take a range and delay your change. Thank you.

  13. I would like to express my affection for your kindness in support of visitors who really need guidance on this important situation. Your personal commitment to getting the message across appears to be certainly productive and has usually permitted men and women much like me to arrive at their pursuits. Your new useful guideline implies this much to me and additionally to my office workers. Thank you; from everyone of us.

  14. I think youve produced some really interesting points. Not also many people would truly think about this the way you just did. Im definitely impressed that theres so substantially about this topic thats been uncovered and you did it so properly, with so significantly class. Very good 1 you, man! Definitely great stuff right here.

  15. I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own weblog and was curious what all is required to get setup? I’m assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny? I’m not very web smart so I’m not 100% certain. Any suggestions or advice would be greatly appreciated. Many thanks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Planets Twitter Rss