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The brain/body bond of elite athletes - ‘The Performance Cortex’

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What is it that truly defines athletic genius?

While there’s no doubt that physique and physicality play massive roles in what makes a successful athlete, there’s more to it than that. True sporting greatness springs from not just one’s body, but also that body’s connection with the brain.

In his new book “The Performance Cortex: How Neuroscience is Redefining Athletic Genius” (Dutton, $28), Zach Schonbrun attempts to explore that connection; it’s a deep dive into the neuroscience behind movement that attempts to develop an understanding of the body-brain relationship and determining how the relationship impacts those performing at an elite athletic level.

(Be warned – it gets pretty wonky, loaded with jargon and some fairly sophisticated science discussion. But even when it gets REALLY nerdy, it remains engaging for the lay reader.)

Professional sports franchises are constantly on the hunt for anything that will give them an edge. However, those same franchises often struggle with any idea that in any way upsets the established paradigm. Basically, they want to have their cake and eat it too – they want to make improvements without actually changing their philosophy in any significant way.

The unofficial “stars” of this story are probably Jason Sherwin and Jordan Muraskin, founders of a startup called deCervo. Their plan? To gather neurological data that will provide insight into a heretofore unparsed question – what happens in the brain to allow a big-league hitter to actually hit a ball?

It sounds simple – and for many years, the MLB attitude was basically “See the ball, hit the ball” and that was that – but it turns out that there’s a lot happening on a neurological level during that process. And by measuring and quantifying that activity, the thought is that such information can potentially be used in a variety of ways – from improving the performance of current players to informing which future prospects are pursued going forward.

Alongside Sherwin and Muraskin’s journey to evolve their methods and develop relationships with MLB teams that are both intrigued by and skeptical of the benefits of this science, Schonbrun explores further. He offers up a bit of history behind the idea of the body-brain connection, a concept that has been subject to a surprising amount of controversy over the years … at least, when people have bothered with what many long considered an unexciting field of study.

Schonbrun also spends time with a number of prominent current figures in the field, which allows for a depth of intellectual engagement that you don’t always find in this kind of ostensibly pop-science work. He’s unafraid to challenge you a little; it gets pretty – forgive the phrase – inside baseball at times. It’s a bit rigorous, but it’s really satisfying to put in a little work and gain actual insight as opposed to keeping things on the surface level.

And of course, there’s plenty of overlap with the athletic world. We get to see the direct connection between research and players a la operations like deCervo. But we also get to do some indirect exploration in terms of considering what role the brain plays in this kind of brilliance. How does Tom Brady do what he does in the way that he does it? Stephen Curry doesn’t have the elite athletic gifts of some of his peers, so how does he outperform them? Why did Michael Jordan – a consensus all-time great athlete – struggle so mightily when he moved from the basketball court to the baseball field? The science at play in “The Performance Cortex” doesn’t fully answer these questions, but it offers some thoughtful hypotheses and loads of useful context.

There’s a freewheeling style to Schonbrun’s work here that seems as though it should be a less-than-ideal fit, and yet – it works. The writer does a remarkable job flipping back and forth between jargon-laden academic conversation and the laconic flow of the locker room. The blend of nerdese and jock talk is reminiscent of a happy ending in a college comedy – two great tastes that surprisingly taste great together.

“The Performance Cortex” isn’t a book that is going to float everyone’s boat. Schonbrun goes in a lot of different directions and simply expects you to follow along – that’s not going to work for every reader. However, anyone with an interest in the brain-body connection – whether it’s on the playing field or in everyday life – is going to find it utterly fascinating.

Last modified on Wednesday, 25 April 2018 22:38


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