Batting around ideas


Statistically speaking, hitting a 90-mile-per-hour baseball with a bat is nearly impossible, said Steven Small, professor in neurology, psychology, and the College, Monday night at the book launch of Your Brain on Cubs: Inside the Heads of Players and Fans. “It takes about a quarter of a second for a muscle to move, and processing the visual system’s messages and reacting to those messages takes at least a third of a second,” said Small, who coauthored a chapter in the book, at the Cubby Bear kitty-corner from Wrigley Field. The aggregate of each hitting element, he noted, is greater than the time from a pitcher’s release to the ball hitting a catcher’s mitt. “That’s the great enigma.”

Cubs hitters like Alfonso Soriano and Derrek Lee can make contact with a speeding ball—at least some of the time—because their motor skills, refined through years of practice, set their brains in motion to swing or take a pitch before it's even released. The players "read into the pitcher’s movement,” Small said: “the sweat on his forehead, his eye movement, his grip on the ball, and the windup to figure out what is coming. If I can figure where the ball will come and at what velocity, I can start to swing in less time than it takes to make those calculations in my head.”

Before each pitch, baseball players—like athletes in other sports with intense preparation such as archery and golf—perform idiosyncratic, highly specialized routines that set their motor plan in motion. In Small's study of PGA golfers preparing their shots, the professionals showed less brain activity than amateurs. “Their total brain activity decreases,” he said, “and they’re so concentrated on their task that their brain activity actually becomes more efficient.” But don’t try to ask an athlete to articulate how he or she does it, warned panel moderator Jeremy Manier, a Chicago Tribune science reporter. The reason is simple, replied Small: “Once you master the task, it becomes difficult to break it down into component parts—I mean, can you explain how you are gripping the damn beer in front of you?”


Photo: Chicago neurology and psychology professor Steven Small discusses the science of hitting during a panel discussion that included Northwestern University psychology and neurobiology professor Aryeh Routtenberg (right) and Your Brain on Cubs editor Dan Gordon (left).

March 11, 2008