SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
To hit a pitched baseball is considered one of the hardest feats in sports. A batter has just milliseconds to figure out how fast the ball was thrown, where it'll cross the plate, or not, and if he'll swing, or not, and how. A couple of neuroscientists are studying the brains of baseball pitchers to measure how they react to pitches. Jason Sherwin is the co-founder of deCervo, a company that specializes in high-speed decision-making. He joins us now from New York, the capital of high-speed decision-making. Thanks so much for being with us.
JASON SHERWIN: Thanks for having me.
SIMON: You've been working with a couple of major league ball clubs.
SHERWIN: That's correct.
SIMON: So I know you can't tell us the names of the teams, but what kind of work do you do to figure this out?
SHERWIN: Well, what we do is we're looking at, on a neural level, how batters make decisions on recognizing pitches or recognizing balls and strikes. And we do that by looking at the brain activity when they're deciding on pitches that we simulate for them on a video game.
SIMON: Can you explain to us how the brain works when a ball is thrown?
SHERWIN: Generally, what's going on is that your visual parts of the brain are figuring out whether this is a pitch to hit or not. And then they have to connect that to the motor parts of the brain. Those are the parts of the brain that allow you to move. And when your visual processing says this is a pitch I want to hit, it will then connect to the motor parts of the brain that allow you to then swing the bat and hopefully make contact with the ball.
SIMON: And how much time are we talking about?
SHERWIN: I mean, from release of the pitch until it gets to the plate, a 95-mile-an-hour fastball is around 425-450 milliseconds. Now, on the other side, it takes 150 milliseconds on average for a Major League Baseball player to get their bat around. So we're really shaving tens of milliseconds here in terms of in the middle where you have to decide on whether this is a pitch to hit or not.
SIMON: Are you deciding or does something else kick in? Is it a learned reaction? Is it reflexes? What is it?
SHERWIN: It's mostly a learned reaction. I mean, there's some amount of reflexes, but in this case, it is a learned thing. Nobody is born with a gene for knowing how to hit a baseball. And it's something that's learned over time and is improved with experience.
SIMON: Now, you know, people have mocked Yogi Berra for years for saying, how do you expect a guy to think and hit at the same time? But he was on to something, wasn't he?
SHERWIN: He was absolutely on to something. When we first started doing this work, we started seeing that when subjects were getting the pitches wrong, they were using the frontal parts of their brain too much. The frontal parts of the brain are mostly involved in deliberate decision-making. And when they get involved, they slow down the speed of your decisions. And when you're up at the plate and you're facing a 95-mile-an-hour fastball and you've got tens of milliseconds really to decide on whether you want to hit this thing or not, that's where that deliberate thinking is a problem. So Yogi was really on to something there.
SIMON: I think a few things as being more important than this, than enhancing the game of baseball. But that being said, I wonder if there are other areas of human enterprise where this research can be applied.
SHERWIN: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I originally started doing research on musicians, as I'm a musician myself, and I wanted to see how their brains reacted to when they listen to music. And then that evolved very quickly into the U.S. Army Research Lab being interested in this for how soldiers and marksman respond to the sound of gunshots. So if you think of, you know, a realm of applications where you have quick decision-making involved, whether it's slamming on the brakes of your car, whether it's a policeman deciding, you know, is this a dangerous person who's running at me or not, there are a whole realm of applications where quick decisions are important and have, you know, serious real-life consequences.
SIMON: Jason Sherwin, neuroscientist and co-founder of deCervo, thanks so much for being with us.
SHERWIN: Thanks a lot, Scott Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.