January 24, 2013

The Football Player’s GPS

By Dan Peterson

It’s too bad the Atlanta Falcons won’t be in this year’s Super Bowl. We’ll miss out on seeing one of the NFL’s most acrobatic young receivers, Julio Jones, as well as a future, first-ballot Hall of Fame tight end, Tony Gonzalez.  During their run through the playoffs, each made highlight reel catches (see below) that demonstrated their world-class sense of proprioception, defined as our unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation.

The best example of this is executing the “toe-tap” reception, where a receiver, at full speed, is able to turn his head to catch the ball then get both feet to land in-bounds, often with only the tips of his toes.  The entire process only takes a split second, certainly not enough time for conscious thought and planning.  Its an unconscious reaction skill that comes from years of honing our spatial awareness.

According to cognitive researchers, three types of brain cells give us this internal GPS, head direction cells, place cells and grid cells. Jeffrey Taube, a professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth, has been studying our sense of direction and location. “Knowing what direction you are facing, where you are, and how to navigate are really fundamental to your survival,” said Taube.

In his research, he has found that head direction cells, located in the thalamus, act as a compass needle tracking the direction our head is currently facing.  At the same time, in the hippocampus, place cells determine and track our location relative to landmarks in the environment, say the football field sideline or the end zone.  These two sets of cells communicate with each other to guide our movement.

“They put that information together to give you an overall sense of ‘here,’ location wise and direction wise,” Taube explained. “That is the first ingredient for being able to ask the question, ‘How am I going to get to point B if I am at point A?’ It is the starting point on the cognitive map.”

Neil Burgess adds one more set of cells to the equation, grid cells.  As a neuroscientist at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, he studies how these cells and their electrical activity helps us navigate through our world. While a place cell helps us know where we are right now, grid cells provide a map of the whole environment, similar to the longitude and latitude of real maps, only in triangular patterns.

In his recent TED talk, he explains experiments conducted in his lab on a rat’s ability to navigate its space.

So, years of practice catching balls at hundreds of locations across a football field could be establishing this set of grid cells in the brain. This mental topography combines with the direction we’re facing, head direction cells, and our current location on the field, place cells, to instruct what our bodies should do at the moment of the catch.

Of course, sometimes this system breaks down and we lose our sense of direction.  Just ask Kent State linebacker Andre Parker.  In a game last fall, he ran down field and picked up a muffed punt, then proceeded to run it back the wrong way towards his own end zone.  After 58 yards, players on the other team, surprisingly, chased him down and tackled him.  Somewhere along the way, his head direction cells, place cells and grid cells all misfired.  Don’t worry Andre, I do that in the mall all the time.

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