What's faster than fastballs? Your brain

New research suggests the mind advances the pitch before it comes
05/09/2013 4:47 PM ET
By Matt Hughes

It turns out Yogi Berra was right about thinking and hitting at the same time.(AP)
Former Yankees catcher Yogi Berra once said: "How can you think and hit at the same time?"

Recent science suggests that you can't.

The average Major League fastball travels at 90 mph, and takes only 0.4 seconds to reach home plate. For years, scientists -- and baseball fans everywhere -- have wondered how Major League players are able to react so quickly to a ball bearing down with such pace. New research done by Gerrit Maus, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, provides some answers.

"As soon as the brain knows something is moving, it pushes the position of the object moving forward, so there's a more accurate measure of where this object actually is," Maus said.

Translated: a Major League player's brain perceives a fastball as further along in its trajectory than seen by his eyes, giving the player the extra split-second he needs to react. Essentially, the brain is good at projecting where the ball will be based on its perceived velocity.

Research shows that it can take the brain one-tenth of a second to process what the eyes see, so that extra split second is critical. Once the eyes pick up on the baseball, the sensory cells in the retina gauge its speed and immediately send that information to the brain. Then, via the spinal cord, that information is sent to the muscles in the arms and legs. The process leaves little to no time to think and only react.

As usual, Yogi was right.

Besides learning how a Major League player turns on a fastball, researchers are hoping a better understanding of how the brain processes objects in motion will help in diagnosing and treating certain neurological disorders. Through targeted experiments of the the V5 area of the brain -- the region toward the back of the brain that processes motion and position -- researchers are hoping to help people who struggle with simple tasks, like pouring a cup of coffee, because they have difficulty processing basic motion and position.

Ironically, the same ability of the brain to pick up on a Major League fastball might also work against hitters on off-speed pitches. The altered trajectory of a breaking ball can actually fool the brain. Major League hitters have been doing their own research on this frustrating issue for years.

Lisa M. Krieger of the San Jose Mercury News first reported on the UC Berkeley research.

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