Share This Page

Researchers figure how athletes hit balls when they don't have time to react

| Thursday, May 9, 2013, 6:36 p.m.

The human brain is far slower than a major league fastball or a blistering tennis serve — but it has figured out a workaround.

New research by University of California, Berkeley scientists solves a puzzle that has long mystified anyone who has watched, in awe, as elite athletes respond to incoming balls that can surpass 90 mph.

The brain perceives speeding objects as farther along in their trajectory than seen by the eyes, giving us time to respond, according to research by Gerrit Maus, lead author of a paper published in Wednesday's issue of the journal Neuron.

This clever adjustment — compensating for the sluggish route from the eyes to neural decision-making — “is a sophisticated prediction mechanism,” he said.

“As soon as the brain knows something is moving, it pushes the position of the object moving forward, so there's a more accurate measure of where this object actually is,” Maus said.

This is useful in survival situations far more important than sports — such as when we're crossing a street in front of a speeding car.

Former Yankees catcher Yogi Berra pondered the mystery, once asking: “How can you think and hit at the same time?”

You can't, because there's not time for both.

“But you don't need to think about it, because the brain does it automatically,” Maus said.

At the average major league speed of 90 mph, a baseball leaves the pitcher's hand and travels 56 feet to home plate in just 0.4 seconds, or 400 milliseconds.

Tennis is even faster. Last May, courtside radar guns measured a serve by British player Samuel Groth at 163 mph.

In that split second, there's a lot of work for the body to do. Eyes must find the ball. The sensory cells in the retina determine its speed and rush this information to the brain. Then the brain sends messages through the spinal cord that tell muscles in the arms and legs to respond.

“By time the brain receives the information, it's already out of date,” Maus said.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.