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The Performance Cortex
Cover of The Performance Cortex
The Performance Cortex
How Neuroscience Is Redefining Athletic Genius
Borrow Borrow
"A must-read for the cerebral sports fan...like Moneyball except nerdier. Much nerdier."
—Sports Illustrated

Why couldn't Michael Jordan, master athlete that he was, crush a baseball? Why can't modern robotics come close to replicating the dexterity of a five-year-old? Why do good quarterbacks always seem to know where their receivers are?
On a quest to discover what actually drives human movement and its spectacular potential, journalist, sports writer, and fan Zach Schonbrun interviewed experts on motor control around the world. The trail begins with the groundbreaking work of two neuroscientists in Major League Baseball who are upending the traditional ways scouts evaluate the speed with which great players read a pitch. Across all sports, new theories and revolutionary technology are revealing how the brain's motor control system works in extraordinary talented athletes like Stephen Curry, Tom Brady, Serena Williams, and Lionel Messi; as well as musical virtuosos, dancers, rock climbers, race-car drivers, and more.
Whether it is timing a 95 mph fastball or reaching for a coffee mug, movement requires a complex suite of computations that many take for granted—until they read The Performance Cortex. Zach Schonbrun ushers in a new way of thinking about the athletic gifts we marvel over and seek to develop in our own lives. It's not about the million-dollar arm anymore. It's about the million-dollar brain.
"A must-read for the cerebral sports fan...like Moneyball except nerdier. Much nerdier."
—Sports Illustrated

Why couldn't Michael Jordan, master athlete that he was, crush a baseball? Why can't modern robotics come close to replicating the dexterity of a five-year-old? Why do good quarterbacks always seem to know where their receivers are?
On a quest to discover what actually drives human movement and its spectacular potential, journalist, sports writer, and fan Zach Schonbrun interviewed experts on motor control around the world. The trail begins with the groundbreaking work of two neuroscientists in Major League Baseball who are upending the traditional ways scouts evaluate the speed with which great players read a pitch. Across all sports, new theories and revolutionary technology are revealing how the brain's motor control system works in extraordinary talented athletes like Stephen Curry, Tom Brady, Serena Williams, and Lionel Messi; as well as musical virtuosos, dancers, rock climbers, race-car drivers, and more.
Whether it is timing a 95 mph fastball or reaching for a coffee mug, movement requires a complex suite of computations that many take for granted—until they read The Performance Cortex. Zach Schonbrun ushers in a new way of thinking about the athletic gifts we marvel over and seek to develop in our own lives. It's not about the million-dollar arm anymore. It's about the million-dollar brain.
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  • From the book 1.

    deCervo

    "How Can You Think and Hit at the Same Time?"

    There was no indication that anything unusual was taking place on an early Saturday morning in August at the Hilton Garden Inn, of Avondale, Arizona, other than the piece of loose-leaf paper taped to the wall by the elevator bank. On it was scribbled in black Sharpie: decervo testing room 307. The room number was underlined. The tone was "no trespassing." Still, the housekeeper knocked on the door of Room 307 at 8:15 with an armful of fresh towels. No one answered, so she used her key to enter. When she did, she did a double take. The furniture in the dumbbell-shaped suite had been rearranged completely. The beds were still made and the blinds were drawn. Two scrawny, acne-pocked Latino teenagers in T-shirts and sandals were seated at matching desks on opposite sides of the room staring unblinking at laptop screens. Each wore a sort of thin metallic hairnet, with wires snaking down the back of their necks. A pile of plastic syringes and two padded briefcases lay scattered on the floor. The only sound came from soft, intermittent taps on the laptop keyboards. Neither of the men looked up to see the housekeeper quickly drop the towels off and go.

    In the everlasting war for even the slightest competitive advantage in Major League Baseball, the battlefields have come to look a lot different than the playing fields. They have left the playing fields behind. This new terrain was once thought to be impregnable. Now, suddenly, held captive on Saturday mornings in suburban hotel rooms, it was spilling its secrets. When other teams learn of this, they will undoubtedly try to do the same. "Moneyball" was that way; once the data-driven revolution started, it became difficult to contain, until every team started using advanced analytics to discover new players or rediscover old ones. Then the battle had to be moved someplace else. Those teams that were late to that data revolution now had a chance to get ahead in this one. This data revolution required a new type of radar gun, one that could measure in milliseconds.

    At 8:25, there was another knock at the door of Room 307. A third baby-faced teenager appeared: Manny, a shortstop, wearing a gray T-shirt and sandals, his eyes puffy and reddened. The boys, they were really just boys, had played in a doubleheader the day before, in the searing Sonoran heat, as the playoffs neared. This being a rookie league team, below Single-A, even below Low-Single-A, every player had recently been drafted or acquired from overseas. It was their first taste of professional American baseball. They remained years away from a whiff of a chance at the Majors; most will never even get that. But as the newest and youngest parcels of a Major League Baseball empire, they are handled delicately. They reside in the hotel, a short drive from a hulking, concrete-and-glass Spring Training complex, where they relax and train in uniforms that bear the familiar colorway of their big-league parent club. They are currently chaperoned by Frank, the organization's director of sports science, who popped in and out of Room 307 with a list of the telephone numbers to each of the players' rooms, in case any of them tried to sleep in. A stocky man with soft blond hair, reddish cheeks and bright eyes, he is friendly, but with a no-bullshit mien, like a waiter at the end of his shift. Frank did not seem to care that 8:00 a.m. for an...
Reviews-
  • Kirkus

    March 1, 2018
    New York Times contributor Schonbrun takes readers on a sometimes-tangled but revealing tour of the minds of winning athletes.A baseball player at bat has a few milliseconds to decide whether to swing at a pitch. Some of that decision will hinge on experience, on the neural pathways telling the batter that this is the sort of thing the eye has seen and the brain has processed before. But in the end, the heavy lifting is being done in the fusiform gyrus, the part of the brain that "picks up baseballs like bird-watchers spot a warbler in the bush," or other parts of the brain that govern perceptions and especially the timing of our responses to them. Schonbrun's principals in his sometimes-science-thick, sometimes-jock-talky narrative are tasked with scouting and training promising athletes. This is no easy matter, especially given that neuro-training, so to speak, isn't something that coaches and managers have adapted themselves to--yet. But more, they and other sports-oriented neuroscientists are "tracing the essential correlates of a skill," using imaging and scientific method alike to chase down the ineffable--e.g., the workings of the mind of a star athlete like, say, Stephen Curry, who "was considered to be too slow-footed and unathletic by scouts that many teams passed on him in the NBA draft." In studying anticipation, decision, and response, some scientists fall back on the old notion that it takes 10,000 hours to become expert at something, which occasions a problem. "No one has any idea why it takes so long," Schonbrun writes, "because no one knows what it actually means to be skilled." But even so, researchers are constantly gaining insight, and their findings are likely to figure prominently in how athletes are recruited and trained for optimal performance in the future.It's not quite in the same league as Moneyball, but readers interested in the applications of neuroscience to everyday life will find plenty of value here.

    COPYRIGHT(2018) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    April 15, 2018

    Journalist Schonbrun (New York Times) investigates how and why some athletes perform better than others. The book begins with baseball; specifically, the research of two men and their deCervo device that can detect the moment a hitter decides to swing or take the pitch thrown toward him. Schonbrun then moves on to cover many different research theories related to sports science, including neuroscientists studying how superior athletes experience less "noise" or distraction. Without noise, each time a human performed motion, it could be perfectly repeated over time. Instead, noise allows for small inconsistencies in movement that alter the result. Also discussed are old adages such as muscle memory, which the author maintains does not exist. Instead, the neural pathway that leads to the series of motion becomes more stable and the information travels faster in the brain without noise. More topics covered involve neurotech; robotics and the mimicking of human movement; and specific studies on stars such as Tom Brady, Steph Curry, and Serena Williams. VERDICT Some background in science and sporting knowledge will be helpful but is not essential. Fans of sport science, sport psychology, robotics, and neuroscience will find this to be informative and inspiring.--Jason L. Steagall, Gateway Technical Coll. Lib., Elkhorn, WI

    Copyright 2018 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    March 15, 2018
    To understand why Jos� Altuve performs so well on the diamond, or why Tom Brady excels on the gridiron, don't look at these sports superstars' arms, hands, legs, or eyes. Examine their brains. Poised to guide the sophisticated sports fan in such examination, Schonbrun lucidly explains the fascinating new world of neuroathletics. Under Schonbrun's tutelage, readers learn how an electroencephalogram (or EEG) exposes the neural markers of a great hitter, how transcranial magnetic stimulation illuminates the brain's process for updating the mental spatial map of a winning quarterback. Naturally, such neuroscience matters not only to intelligent fans but also to team managers, coaches, and athletes themselves. In the march of neuroscience?from ancient Egyptian medical treatments for head injuries to twenty-first-century techniques for transcranial direct-current stimulation?readers will recognize the emergence of stunning future possibilities for assessing and perfecting the performance of athletes (Schonbrun's prime concern) as well as musicians and dancers. The stereotype of the dumb jock may not survive this explosive jolt!(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2018, American Library Association.)

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How Neuroscience Is Redefining Athletic Genius
Zach Schonbrun
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