The book: “The Performance Cortex: Now Neuroscience Is Redefining Athletic Genius”
The author: Zach Schonbrun
How to find it: Dutton Books, 352 pages, $28, released April 17.
The links: At Amazon.com, at the publisher’s website.
A review in 90-feet or less: It might be shelved under categories such as “medical books” or “sports psychology,” even “training and conditioning.” But when it shows up the baseball section – the cover illustration is a hint — it’s likely because this is the sport where the basis of this thinking and probing emanates, so don’t over think too much outside the batter’s box too much.
Or, as Schonbrun says in the introduction, his narrative remains “anchored by the baseball diamond, to that purest of athletic exchanges, when a batter stands at the plate awaiting a pitch…. It’s time to give those milli-seconds their due.”
We saw in Bob Tewksbury’s new book “Ninety Percent Mental” there is all sorts of ways the mind can be used in the baseball process. Here, we go to the real science of what appears to be more than just intuitive, thanks to the inquisitive approach by Schonbrun, a New York Times contributor since 2011 with a masters in journalism from Columbia.
He logically explains that this is just baseball’s latest outside influence, following in the succession of orthopedists, psychologist, optometrists, strength coaches, nutritionists, sabermetrics, sleep doctors and yoga instructors.
He’s allowed to follow the journey of Jason Sherwin and Jordan Muraskin, who started a company called deCervo, which aims to be a neutral bystander in the measuring and improvement of cognitive performance.
There is a point in the book — perhaps early, but our brain is still processing it — when this all sounds like something best digested in an audio version. The written words on the pages can be very intimidating, like a college intro science elective for a dance major.
And then there’s another chapter? Does this really have a conclusion? It’s like a magazine story unraveled.
In our head, we hear the voice of famed neurobiologist Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler reciting the paragraphs to a point where even Sheldon Cooper’s impatience gets the best of him.
So the deal is, a neuroscientist may never understand why baseball managers who wear uniforms still use a landline to call relief pitchers in a bullpen. But, as Schonbrun writes, “even after 170 years, you can still see something new in any game.”
So welcome to EEGs and video simulation that computes data assessed in one’s rapid perceptual decision-making abilities.
At the center of some of this is circling back to the Michael Jordan baseball experiment – why couldn’t an athlete as gifted as he not crush a baseball, but someone like the physique-challenge John Kruk ended up as a lifetime .300 major-league hitter.
“Michael Jordan may have had the vision, the hand speed, the coordination even the intuitive know-how to better predict what a pitcher could be imminently unloading … But another ingredient was still missing from the ‘package’ … (that) resides beneath the helmet.”
In essence, the “other” Jordan — Muraskin, with his partner, Sherwin, but through the book refered to mostly as “Jason and Jordan” — provide the foundation in a look-what-we-found sort of way. Even more interesting, they still have only about 300 Twitter followers amassed since 2014 touting their “uHIT” approach to data.
“Jason and Jordan did not care so much how the hitters developed their talent,” Schonbrun writes on page 45. “They cared about describing it, in digestible data bites, to teams hungry for that information. But they had already begun to tread, perhaps even unwittingly, into a realm once reserved for poets and philosophers. Their studies could have cited inquisitors reaching back to antiquity. The effort to understand the role of the slugger’s SMA was just another version of the cerebellum that Erasistratus studied at Alexandria in the third century BCE. Galen wrote treatises on the cranial nerves before becoming the personal physician to Severus. The ventricles fascinated Da Vinci, who cast them out of wax. Descartes believed in the etheral spirits rumbling through the nerves like steam through a pipe. Issac Newton saw no spirits; he believed the nerves transmitted information by vibration. Darwin wrote of the size of a main’s brain, while William James wrote of its mechanistic simplicity. Thomas Edison wrote of little people arranging memories in the hippocampus.
“Not every immoral thinker produced immortal thoughts about the brain and its functional organization.”
Check that. Maybe Dennis Miller should be the audio book orator, or else we should attempt to finish this read this under the covers at night where the retinal ganglion cells will be at their optimal challenge.
How it goes down in the scorebook: We felt this review by Sports Illustrated’s Jon Wertheim summed it well: “To use a voguish sports catchphrase, The Performance Cortex is ‘next level.’ We’ve heard a lot about ‘mental toughness’ and ‘hard-wiring for success,’ but now Zach Schonbrun reveals the latest science on how elite athletic feats are actually accomplished. Fans will understand the genius behind all sports more clearly after reading this book. And they can, with pleasure. Schonbrun has mastered the art of writing gracefully about dense—and potential groundbreaking—material.”