Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The Performance Cortex: How Neuroscience Is Redefining Athletic Genius by Zach Schonbrun

The Performance Cortex: How Neuroscience Is Redefining Athletic Genius by Zach Schonbrun. Penguin Publishing Group. Copyright April 2018.; hb., 352 pp.; ISBN: 978110986332.

Many years ago, I recall reading an article about how Tiger Woods learned to golf so well by the scientific methods taught to him by his father.  Curious, I never pursued that interesting fact, but it came to mind again with this book about the brain and athletic performance.  The brain can be trained for athletic performance up to a certain age, exemplified by the author’s reference to Michael Jordan who had an interest in baseball but couldn’t grow in the required skills and yet had what was needed for baseball. 

Dagmar Sternad has an Action Lab at Northeastern University.  Here she experimented with the game skittles, demonstrating how timing from the brain and physiology conspires to make us winners or losers and how movement or kinetic patterns and features could be retained for up to eight years.  There is also an interesting discussion of skills that are learned and involve brain activity but can not develop further because of “habit” that negates any further learning curve from progressing. This involves “action controllers, “automatization” or even “muscle memory” as an action or sequence of actions that get formed, reorganized and consolidated in our long-term memory.  And so it goes.

These are a few of the examples and explanations that tell the story of athletic and normal action in an understandable presentation, such as the reflex arc, the feed-forward loop of sensory-to-motor connections that trigger everyday actions or the position of neural swing decisions in baseball, tennis and volleyball serves.

The factor of intention is also discussed as in using a scalpel to operate or to murder.  The same applies about these motor skills applied to kinematics or movement.  All in all, “stimulus-response connections build up a nervous system of sets which function like cognitive maps.” 

The authors even describe how “virtual arms” learn to operate or are taught by science to understand the training behind using these prostheses.

Anyone interested in physical activity, sports, coaching etc. will find this book fascinating and interesting for practice or just understanding the theories and applications that apply when playing or watching sports.  Highly recommended and engaging science in a credible, readable book.  Nicely done, Zach Schonbrun!

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