The neuroscience of winning explained

Which neural processes underlie expert sport performance? How do our brains evolve with training? Since the 1990s – known as the decade of the brain – brain imaging (e.g. fMRI, PET scans etc.) has shed light on the neural basis of different psychological disorders.

More recently, rather than simply exploring the pathology of brain, researchers have become concerned with the neural changes that occur with the development of expertise.

One classic study explored this in a non-sport context. London taxi drivers were studied to investigate the effect of their navigation skills and memory on their brain structure. Maguire and collegues reported that they had enlarged portions of the hippocampus compared to control subjects. The longer the subjects had been driving the greater the effect.

When investigating this expertise effect, participants entered a MRI scanner and remained static during the scanning. Here is where we see the limits of neuroscience.

At present, we can only use relatively crude measures during complex action in a laboratory setting. Further, with brain imaging we typically have to ask participants to imagine their activity and thus infer differences from their simulation of the activity – within a scanner, movements are constricted.

Nevertheless, some interesting findings have emerged in baseball, golf and platform diving.

Baseball players’ ability to hit deliveries that are pitched at them at speeds of over 100 miles an hour was explored. The baseball hitter’s brain has to coordinate two main tasks in striking the ball successfully – preparing to swing the bat and interpreting the kinematic movements of the pitcher in an effort to predict the direction of the pitched ball.

In order to understand the neural substrates of these skills, Milton and colleagues have used brain-imaging technology to investigate expert-novice differences in baseball players as they imagine swinging their bats to hit the ball.

From such research, a number of fascinating insights into the neuroscience of ball games have emerged.

Perhaps the most important one is that expert players typically show less brain activation, but greater cortical efficiency, than novice counterparts. For example, whereas expert baseball hitters tend to activate mainly the supplementary motor areas of the brain when they imagine hitting, novice players tend to activate the limbic regions (e.g. the amygdala and basal forebrain complex) which generally regulate emotions such as fear and anxiety.

This activation of the limbic region suggests that novice players have a difficulty in filtering out irrelevant information as they prepare to execute their swings.

Studies with both golf and diving showed that there are differences in the diffusion of activity between experts and novices during simulation of their activities.

Currently, we are on the crest of the wave of neuroscience and this domain will illuminate our understanding of expert sports performance in the future.