One of baseball’s well worn axioms is that “hitting is contagious.” Once a few batters get on base, those hitting behind them rally at the plate. In fact, MLB batting averages are roughly 50%–70% higher for a batter following hits by the previous two batters as compared to outs made by the previous two batters. While baseball theorists have explanations for this such as rattled pitchers or motivated hitters, recent cognitive science research points to a unique learning system in our brains known as mirror neurons.
When a young player picks up a bat for the first time, they begin a long process of education that relies heavily on imitation. Watching other players swing at pitches and listening to coaches give them instruction builds the pathways of connections in their brain that will be continuously called on and improved throughout their playing days.
In the early 1990s, Italian researchers stumbled onto an interesting relationship while measuring the brain activity of macaque monkeys. When the monkeys reached for a piece of food, certain neurons in the ventral pre-motor cortex showed electrical activity. Surprisingly, when a human picked up the food in front of the monkeys, the same set of neurons in the monkeys’ brains fired. Dubbed “mirror neurons”, as if the brain was mirroring the actions of others, this new discovery is now being included in many different theories of how we learn, especially the motor skills we need in sports.
Emily Cross, a cognitive science professor at Bangor University, has been a dancer for most of her life. As a brain researcher, she is trying to understand how she learned the complicated movements that now seem simple.
While earning her doctorate at Dartmouth, she led an experiment to find out if we need to physically perform a new task to learn it, or if merely observing others doing it would be enough.
The “task” they chose was to learn new dance steps (no surprise) from a video game eerily similar to “Dance, Dance Revolution”. In this game, a computer screen (or TV) shows you the dance moves and you have to imitate them on a plastic mat on the floor connected to the game. If you make the right steps, timed to the music, you score higher.
Cross and the team “taught” their subjects in three groups. The first group was able to view and practice the new routine. The second group only was allowed to watch the new routine, but not physically practice it. The third group was a control group that did not get any training at all. The subjects were later scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they watched the same routine they had either learned (actively or passively) or not seen (the control group).
As predicted, they found that the two trained groups showed common activity in the Action Observance Network (AON) in the brain, a group of neural regions found mostly in the inferior parietal and premotor cortices of the brain (near the top of the head) responsible for motor skills and some memory functions. In other words, whether they physically practised the new steps or just watched the new steps, the same areas of the brain were activated and their performance of the new steps were significantly similar.
“It’s been established in previous research that there are correlations in behavioral performance between active and passive learning, but in this study we were surprised by the remarkable similarity in brain activation when our research participants observed dance sequences that were actively or passively experienced,” commented Cross.
The team put together a great video summarizing the experiment.
So, let’s take our mirror neurons out to the ball diamond. When batters perform better after their teammates get on base before them, could it be that watching successful at-bats activate their own mirror neurons that have stored the ball hitting program?
Rob Gray of the University of Birmingham and Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago combined their expertise in sport science and psychology, respectively, to investigate the effect that skill observation has on skill performance. Specifically, they asked several questions; would observing a successful hit increase the success of actually getting a hit? Would more experienced batters benefit more from observation than rookie hitters? Would the benefit of observation decrease the longer the time between watching a hitter and actually being up to bat?
They gathered 24 college age baseball players, 12 who played for a college team and had 10+ years of competitive experience and 12 who were just recreational players with only 6 years of competitive experience. Using a baseball simulation environment, hitters were first tested on a series of pitches to set a baseline of performance. The next day, they were shown recorded simulations of batters getting hits prior to their second round of hitting.
As expected, both groups of batters improved significantly after viewing the successful prompts prior to hitting but the effect was reduced as the time span between observation and hitting increased.
Also, the more experienced players improved their performance even more than the recreational players. Why would they benefit more from watching their teammates? Gray and Beilock conclude, “It would be expected that (due to differences in the amount of practice) more-experienced batters have more developed and robust perceptual-motor representations for this task than less-experienced batters, that is, there is a stronger link between the desired observable outcome and the motor action required to achieve that outcome.” In other words, watching a teammate get a hit may trigger a hitter’s own stored neural network for getting the bat on the ball.
These results should give coaches and players some ideas for game preparation. Watching repeated simulations of pitches or successful hitting should activate and fine tune a hitter’s mirror neurons so they have immediate payback at the plate. It also appears that a wise Tommy Lasorda, longtime Dodger manager, was ahead of his time when he stated, “Hitting is contagious. One guy starts hitting well, the other guys are gonna catch on.”