The Situationist

The Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players

Posted by The Situationist Staff on March 20, 2007

Nomar GarciaparraAs discussed by Howard Wasserman on Sports Law Blog, David Brooks of the New York Times has a fascinating column on how baseball players “depend almost exclusively on the unconscious brain to play the game and how baseball has developed drills to reinforce those unconscious responses.” Brooks describes the work of fellow Situationist Timothy Wilson in explaining the strikingly limited capacities of the human brain to process the information it absorbs, and how baseball players’ success not only reflects strength and brawn, but also extraordinary mental processing skills. Here are some excerpts from Brooks’ piece.

* * *

One of the core messages of brain research is that most mental activity happens in the automatic or unconscious region of the brain. The unconscious mind is not a swamp of repressed memories and childhood traumas, the way Freud imagined. It’s a set of mental activities that the brain has relegated beyond awareness for efficiency’s sake, so the conscious mind can focus on other things. In his book, “Strangers to Ourselves,” Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia notes that the brain can absorb about 11 million pieces of information a second, of which it can process about 40 consciously. The unconscious brain handles the rest.

The automatic mind generally takes care of things like muscle control. But it also does more ethereal things. It recognizes patterns and construes situations, searching for danger, opportunities or the unexpected. It also shoves certain memories, thoughts, anxieties and emotions up into consciousness.

Baseball is one of those activities that are performed mostly by the automatic mind. Professional baseball players have phenomenal automatic brains.timothy-wilson-strangers-to-ourselves.JPG

As Jeff Hawkins points out in his book “On Intelligence,” it is nearly impossible to design a computer with a robotic arm that can catch a ball. The calculations the computer has to make are too complicated to accomplish in time. Baseball players not only can do that with ease, they can hit a split-finger fastball besides.

Over the decades, the institution of baseball has figured out how to instruct the unconscious mind, to make it better at what it does. As we know the automatic brain only by the behavior it produces, so we can instruct it only by forcing it to repeat certain actions. Jeff Kent is practicing covering first after all these years because the patterns of the automatic brain have to be constantly and repetitively reinforced.

But baseball has accomplished another, more important feat. It has developed a series of habits and standards of behavior to keep the conscious mind from interfering with the automatic mind.

Baseball is one of those activities in which the harder you try, the worse you do. The more a pitcher aims the ball, the wilder he becomes. The more a batter tenses, the slower and more tentative his muscles become.

David OrtizOver the generations, baseball people have developed an infinity of tics and habits to distract and sedate the conscious mind. Managers encourage a preternaturally calm way of being — especially after failure. In the game I happened to see here on Tuesday, Detroit Tigers pitcher Nate Robertson threw poorly, but strutted off the mound as if he’d just slain Achilles. Second baseman Kevin Hooper waved pathetically at a third struck fastball, but walked back to the dugout wearing an expression of utter nonchalance.

This sort of body language helps players remain steady amid humiliation, so they’ll do better next time.

Believe me, the people involved in the sport have no theory of the human mind, but under the pressure of competition, they’ve come up with a set of practices that embody a few key truths.

First, habits and etiquette shape the brain. Or as Timothy Wilson puts it, “One of the most enduring lessons of social psychology is that behavior change often precedes changes in attitudes and feelings.”

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For more from Brooks’ excellent piece, click here.

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9 Responses to “The Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players”

  1. The Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players

  2. Ray said

    Ok, substitute baseball with hockey and I’m sold on the genius of the unconscious mind of these athletes. I would think that a sport that is in constant, high-speed motion, that is played at a level in which conscious thinking is almost impossible, is a better sport to support this theory.

    It is true that when playing sports, when it really matters, you let yourself go and are almost completely controlled by your instinct. I’ve often wondered that great athletes are not respected enough for their minds. To be able to excel at such high levels of athleticism, public pressure, and physical endurance is amazing and only few can handle it. But again, look at hockey – there is never a part of the game that is played without motion. The amount of information that must be processed is astounding: holding an object (stick), moving in an unnatural way (skating), handling a puck, watching plays develop, going at speeds of sometimes 30 MPH, as well as all the other information being processed in other sports (crowds, noise, etc.).

    Basically, what I’m trying to say is that hockey players are geniuses.

  3. Piercarlo said

    see Malcolm Gladwell’s 1999 piece in the new yorker, the physical genius.

  4. […] To read Hanson and Yosifon’s law review article from which this excerpt is drawn, go to “The Situational Character.” For a sample of previous posts discussing the role of unconscious and automatic causes of behavior, see “The Situation of Reason,” “The Magnetism of Beautiful People,” and “The Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players.” […]

  5. […] Dweck), “The Perils of Being Smart,” “Jock or Nerd,” “First Person or Third,” “The Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players,” and “The Situation of ‘Winners’ and ‘Losers’.” […]

  6. Brian said

    Yes, it works for hockey too. But for baseball, where there is time in between plays for the pitcher or the hitter to psyche himself out and totally throw everything he’s practiced the majority of his life off-kilter, it works even better. It’s not so much intelligence as it is pure instinct and being able to keep it that way, since there is little margin for error in baseball. A pitch that doesn’t break as much as the pitcher wanted to because he over-thought it, or a batter taking a huge cut at a 3-2 pitch in the ninth that he should have crushed, only to come up empty. Plus, baseball is a sport where one’s failure is somewhat expected. Giving up 3 runs a game for a pitcher is just fine, getting out 7/10 is perfectly OK.
    What’s even more astounding is that some baseball players aren’t even very good athletes. They do, however, have the strength and the muscle memory from years of practice to help them compete at the highest levels of the game.

  7. […] To read Hanson and Yosifon’s law review article from which this excerpt is drawn, go to “The Situational Character.” For a sample of previous posts discussing the role of unconscious and automatic causes of behavior, see “The Situation of Reason,” “The Magnetism of Beautiful People,” and “The Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players.” […]

  8. […] “The Unconscious Genius of Baseball Players,” […]

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