Why Andrew McCutchen is Neuroscience's Next Frontier

Scientists are fawning over Major League Baseball players for their brains, not brawn.

Photo by Dave Arrigo, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Pirates


The next time someone tells you that sports are “dumb,” have that close-minded person consider this: It takes about 400 milliseconds for a major-league pitcher’s fastball to cross home plate. It takes the average human being 150 milliseconds to blink when a light is shone in their face. A batter needs to identify the rotation of the ball, the speed of the pitch and where to swing in about 200 milliseconds — before the ball is even halfway to the plate.

The fact that Pirates superstar Andrew McCutchen can hit a walk-off home run like this one isn’t dumb jock stuff. It’s a neuroscientific miracle.

This is why Carnegie Mellon University psychology professor Timothy Verstynen has decided that baseball is the perfect “real world” laboratory to study the way that our brains translate our planned-out thought processes into unconscious physical action. Verstynen, who recently received a Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation, will use the $500,000 in funding to study the nuanced relationship between cognitive and procedural aspects of complex actions. In other words, he wants to know how “muscle memory” happens.

That’s where America’s pastime comes in.

For Verstynen, baseball is the ultimate example of how humans translate high-level strategic thinking into unconscious, instantaneous action. Think of how many logical inputs are needed for McCutchen to hit a pitch before it even leaves the pitcher’s hand: What does the pitcher like to throw in this situation? How many men are on base? Is he too fatigued to throw his heater? Does the pitcher have a certain “tell” when he prepares to throw a slow curve? There’s a lot of context that goes into “How we make decisions on whether or not to engage in action,” Verstynen says.

In other words, understanding what’s going on upstairs when Andrew McCutchen lays off a breaking pitch or turns on a fastball can tell us a lot about how our thoughts get translated into these split second actions and how these split second decisions can be optimized and conducted more quickly and efficiently. According to Verstynen, this is part of a paradigm shift in psychological studies, where rather than looking at an average specimen, psychologists and neuroscientists are looking to individuals who have optimized these mental processes.

“Psychology and cognitive neuroscience know the most about the male rat and the 22-year-old college student,” Verstynen says, but now “[t]here [are] labs in Australia and England that are looking at cricket players and rugby players and hockey players.”

We’re not sure why scientists would want to study hockey players. As we’re well aware, the Penguins make the decision to rifle a slap shot whenever the fans scream, “Shhhhooooooooooooot.”


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You can read more about Ashley here or follow her on Twitter @ashleypgh.

Categories: The 412