Batter Up! Hitting Fastballs with the Emotional Brain



There might not be any crying in baseball, but the emotional brain is critical to high performance.


Recently I happened to hear NPR’s Scott Simon interviewing neurophysiologist Jason Sherwin about his research into how a baseball batter processes an incoming fastball. I’m always attuned to anything in the news about how the ever-evolving field of neuroscience informs our everyday lives, and I expect fairly often to hear some reference to the power of the emotional brain, but baseball?

Yep, baseball. Especially fast baseball.

Possibly it’s no surprise that the faster the game the less likely it is that successful performance would be found in anyplace other than the limbic system, the most primal, instinctual part of the brain. Learning and reflexes play an important part, according to Sherwin, but in his research batters who engaged the “thinking part” of the brain more often – the pre-frontal cortex – performed worse in decision-making; on whether or not to hit an incoming fastball.

Sherwin:

When we first started doing this work, we started seeing that when subjects were getting the pitches wrong, they were using the frontal parts of their brain too much. The frontal parts of the brain are mostly involved in deliberate decision-making. And when they get involved, they slow down the speed of your decisions. And when you’re up at the plate and you’re facing a 95-mile-an-hour fastball and you’ve got tens of milliseconds really to decide on whether you want to hit this thing or not, that’s where that deliberate thinking is a problem.

Turns out that the very thing we seek to achieve by activating emotional triggers for more instinctual or automatic decisions is precisely what drives high-performance in hitting fastballs.

It’s really a whole new spin on the idea of making sure your pitches have an emotional payoff.

Here’s the entire interview:

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