It's spring training fielding practice, and Jeff Kent, the Dodgers second baseman, is covering first. A coach rolls the ball out toward the mound. The pitcher scrambles to pick up the ball. The catcher yells out which base he should throw to. Kent runs over and catches the ball at first.
Jeff Kent is 39 years old and has been playing professionally for 17 years. He's probably been doing this same drill since he was 10 years old, because the practice drills the Little Leaguers do are basically the same drills the major leaguers do. Why is Jeff Kent, after all these years, still learning to cover first?
Because the institution of baseball understands how to make the most of the human brain.
One of the core messages of brain research is that most mental activity happens in the automatic or unconscious region of the brain. The unconscious mind is not a swamp of repressed memories and childhood traumas, the way Freud imagined. It's a set of mental
activities that the brain has relegated beyond awareness for efficiency's sake, so the conscious mind can focus on other things. In his book, "Strangers to Ourselves," Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia notes that the brain can absorb about 11 million pieces of information a second, of which it can process about 40 consciously. The unconscious brain handles the rest.
The automatic mind generally takes care of things like muscle control. But it also does more ethereal things. It recognizes patterns and construes situations, searching for danger, opportunities or the unexpected. It also shoves certain memories, thoughts, anxieties and emotions up into consciousness.
Baseball is one of those activities that are performed mostly by the automatic mind. Professional baseball players have phenomenal automatic brains.
As Jeff Hawkins points out in his book "On Intelligence," it is nearly impossible to design a computer with a robotic arm that can catch a ball. The calculations the computer has to make are too complicated to accomplish in time. Baseball players not only can do that with ease, they can hit a split-finger fastball besides.
Over the decades, the institution of baseball has figured out how to instruct the unconscious mind, to make it better at what it does. As we know the automatic brain only by the behavior it produces, so we can instruct it only by forcing it to repeat certain actions. Jeff Kent is practicing covering first after all these years because the
patterns of the automatic brain have to be constantly and repetitively reinforced.
But baseball has accomplished another, more important feat. It has developed a series of habits and standards of behavior to keep the conscious mind from interfering with the automatic mind.
Baseball is one of those activities in which the harder you try, the worse you do. The more a pitcher aims the ball, the wilder he becomes. The more a batter tenses, the slower and more tentative his muscles become.
Over the generations, baseball people have developed an infinity of tics and habits to distract and sedate the conscious mind. Managers encourage a preternaturally calm way of being — especially after failure. In the game I happened to see here on Tuesday, Detroit Tigers pitcher Nate Robertson threw poorly, but strutted off the mound as if he'd just slain Achilles. Second baseman Kevin Hooper waved pathetically at a third struck fastball, but walked back to the dugout wearing an expression of utter nonchalance.
This sort of body language helps players remain steady amid humiliation, so they'll do better next time.
Believe me, the people involved in the sport have no theory of the human mind, but under the pressure of competition, they've come up with a set of practices that embody a few key truths.
First, habits and etiquette shape the brain. Or as Timothy Wilson puts it, "One of the most enduring lessons of social psychology is that behavior change often precedes changes in attitudes and feelings."
And second, there is a certain kind of practical wisdom that is not taught but is imparted through experience. It consists of a sensitivity to the contours of how a situation may evolve, which cannot be put into words.
Baseball players are like storm-tossed sailors falling and rising with the slumps and hot streaks that emanate from inaccessible parts of themselves. The rest of us rationalists use statistics to try to understand the patterns of what they do.
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