Notes on The Performance Cortex by Zach Schonbrun

Chapter 1 – Decervo

In baseball, the first implementation of medical assistance in the sport came in the 1950’s in the form of orthopedists (Schonbrun, 10).

This was followed by psychologists, then optometrists, strength coaches, massage therapists, nutritionists, economists, sabermetricians (essentially people who study baseball), zen masters, sleep doctors, and yoga instructors. Finally, neuroscientists joined in (Schonbrun, 10). The first implementation of such neuroscientists was exemplified in a startup called DeCervo (Schonbrun, 10).

DeCervo measured the brainwaves of players and was able to discern why they were not performing to the best of their abilities in some cases (Schonbrun, 11 – 13).

When applied to Jordan, a college-level baseball player who was theoretically the best on the team, but always performed the worst, this gear revealed that he was late to recognize certain varieties of pitches and thus missed certain swings (Schonbrun, 12).

Eventually neurally collected data became a key differentiator in scouting players (Schonbrun, 15).

In 1954, psychologists were able to determine that batters in baseball could not watch the until the point where the bat meets the ball (Schonbrun, 20).

As the study of sports psychology advanced, researchers found that, the younger the athlete is, the easier it is to develop new athletic skills (Schonbrun, 22-24). In the case of Michael Jordan, he was seemingly unable to play baseball at a high level, despite his equivalent prowess in basketball (Schonbrun, 22). At the age of 31, the development of these new skills had become so difficult that he could seemingly no longer make meaningful improvement due to a lack of early-life development (Schonbrun, 24).

Using EEG technology, researchers measured the accuracy of decisions to swing or not to swing based on a rudimentary simulation of ball throws (Schonbrun, 35-37). Using this technique, these researchers at DeCervo identified the exact brainwave and moment when the batter firmly decided to swing or not to swing (Schonbrun, 38). Combining this with readings from fMRI (Functional MRI) readings, these researchers arrived at the conclusion that experts in baseball experienced “higher activation in the parahippocampal gyrus and the paracingulate gyrus” — essentially that experts were able to better predict the pitch of the ball (Schonbrun, 39).

The SMA, a region of the brain capable of stopping movement was also shown to activate more in experts (Schonbrun, 39). The idea was that experts were ready to and planning to swing, but the SMA was better able to prevent the swing, should it not be necessary (Schonbrun, 40).

The uncited parts of the chapter were largely narrative portions and did not relate to the research I am conducting.

Chapter 2 – The Movement Chauvinist

The variance observed in performance in sport is attributed to “noise” in the nervous signals to each of the involved regions (Schonbrun, 52). This noise is found in varying degrees depending upon the person in question, but some people can be born with much less noise in their nervous pathways (Schonbrun, 52).

Metaphorically speaking, myelin is the wire coating of the nerves — it aids to ensure that nervous signals do not “leak out” (Schonbrun, 56). Additionally, this allows the nervous signals to travel faster along their pathways (Schonbrun, 56).

This noise is argued not to be entirely detrimental. In some cases, researchers have argued that it is beneficial in that it allows for exploration of the fine motor movements of players (Schonbrun, 60-61).

Due to the relatively slow speed of nervous signal transmission, bringing it back to baseball, the players are forced to rely upon prediction and not feedback (Schonbrun, 68-70).

Note for later: Find Wolpert and Kording’s January 2004 paper on Bayesian Integration. (Schonbrun, 73 for reference)

What makes athletes predictions and pre-actions so inconsistent is not only the noise found in nervous signals, but also the error that is found in human senses (Schonbrun, 74-75). For example, in a phenomenon called the McGurk effect, an audio recording of a woman saying “Ba ba ba” was edited over a video of her saying “Ga ga ga,” which caused viewers to perceive that she was saying “Da da da” (Schonbrun, 75). While this perception is wrong, it is also the optimal perception as it has the least chance to be wrong given the input received by the viewer (Schonbrun, 75).

Chapter 3 – The Motor Hunter

As an anecdote, in 2015, a biker was given a bike welded so that the handle bar would cause the bike to turn in the opposite direction of a normal bike (Schonbrun, 86). Although he expected to be able to master this new bike in a few days, it took him eight months and, afterwards he struggled to ride a regular bike (Schonbrun, 86).

Motor researchers refer to the building of motor skills as “scaffolding” (Schonbrun, 87). The learner starts out by carefully following a procedure and gradually builds that direction-following into a skill that he or she then does not have to think about (Schonbrun, 87).

As a result of this form of automation, we form habits, which can also be detrimental (Schronbrun, 87-88).

On a separate note, the “home court advantage” is an effect of the dopamine levels within the “substantia nigra to the neostriatum of your brain” (Schonbrun, 103).

Chapter 4 – From Mind to Muscle

In the year 1874, two German scientists had the unique chance to operate on a woman with a cancerous ulcer that had opened a hole that was two inches in diameter in the side of her head (Schonbrun, 131). The woman, who was awake during the time of the operation, complained about intermittent tingling as the two scientists poked her left posterior lobe, which caused muscle contractions on the right side of her body (Schonbrun, 131-132). The scientists then stimulated the right posterior lobe of her brain using an electrode, causing contractions on the left side of her body (Schonbrun, 132). As the strength of the current began to increase, she began to cry, then later suffered a seizure, afterwards complaining about weakness and vertigo (Schonbrun, 132). She died a few days afterwards (Schonbrun, 132).

Interestingly, however, in experiments done with dogs in which parts of their brains were removed in an attempt to make them lose control of specific muscle groups, it was found that no specific part of any cortex the brain is exclusively responsible for one muscle group (Schonbrun, 132-133).

Chapter 5 – The Neurotech Space was not especially related to my thesis

Chapter 6 – Searching for the Motor Engram

Within the field of neurology, there were historically two opposing views – one that claimed that plans to execute movements were then stored as reflexes and executed at the desired time, and one that believed that actions were created from intentions (Schonbrun, 188-190).

Scientists have discovered that development of the left side of the brain, often associated with speech and the processing of it, does not hinder the development of the right side of the brain (Schonbrun, 197-198). This being considered, the primary motor cortex is not completely separate from other sections of the brain (Schonbrun, 200).

As humans learn functions that become automatic, the first impulse in the series of actions becomes the most important (Schonbrun, 204-206). Memorizing small chunks of a skill, then combining them repeatedly, will cause the first ‘chunk’ of the skill to trigger the following one (Schonbrun, 205).

Over time, between executions of a motor task, this task can progressively become less optimally trained, which is why warming up is regarded as so effective (Schonbrun, 206-208). Some athletes have strange “ticks” that seem to be the priming chunk of their muscle memory in games (Schonbrun, 208). Some examples of this include a quick neck turn before the swing of a golf club or the tugging of the one’s shorts in between tennis points (Schonbrun, 208).

When not intentionally practicing a motor function, the brain can still absorb methods and form habits based on it (Schonbrun, 211).

Fingers take up almost twice the “brain area” that the elbow, forearm, and wrist do combined (Schonbrun, 214).

Chapter 7 – Embodied Expertise

The areas of the brain that are recognized in embodied expertise are the IPL (inferior parietal lobule), STS (superior temporal sulcus), and the PMV (ventral premotor cortex) (Schonbrun, 239). Additionally, these brain regions are more active when watching a dance piece that the observer has practiced than when watching one the observer has not practiced (Schonbrun, 239).

“Virtually all learning phenomena resulting from direct experiences can occur on a vicarious basis through observation of other people’s behavior and its consequences for them” – Albert Bandura in 1977 (Schonbrun, 244).

Chapter 8 – The Body in Space was not especially useful for my Senior Thesis topic

Chapter 9 – A Paralyzed Man Who Moved, while interesting, was not helpful for my Senior Thesis paper.

Schonbrun, Zach. The Performance Cortex: How Neuroscience Is Redefining Athletic Genius. Dutton, 2018.

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