This is Your Brain on Billiards: How Your Brain Maintains the Mind-Body Connection -N
Editor’s Note: NYC Grind is pleased to present the fourth article by one of our newest contributors, Dr. Jan Mohlman, billiards enthusiast and professor of psychology at Rutgers and William Paterson University.* Jan’s writing focuses on the ways in which different aspects of the mind impact performance in pool. One of the many great fascinations of the humankind is the ability for the mind and body to co-create actions and reactions, and in this article Jan addresses how these connections relate to pool playing. We encourage you to join the conversation by sharing your reactions, comments, or experiences on this topic as well.
… This is Your Brain on Billiards: How Your Brain Maintains the Mind-Body Connection By NYC Grind Contributor, Dr. Jan Mohlman Dr. Jan Mohlman
If you think there is a lot involved in the physical game of pool, you should see what goes on at the neural level. While you are busy playing your match, your brain works overtime to maintain a connection between your body and mind so that you can make brilliant shots and successfully plan your runout. This is accomplished through the activation of a number of neural networks and channels, some interconnected and some independent, that when integrated, lead to your game.
The brain is divided into two slightly asymmetrical hemispheres or halves, and four major sections called lobes (see figure below), with the occipital lobe governing vision and balance (green), the temporal lobe governing basic motivation and emotion (blue), the parietal lobe governing sensory and motor activities (yellow), and the frontal lobe governing higher-order goal setting, planning and organizing (red). All four lobes are involved in billiards, which means that much of your brain is active during a match. Lobes of the Brain
Brain areas are also described in terms of relative location: anterior, ventral (both meaning ‘toward the front’), posterior, dorsal (both meaning ‘toward the back’), medial (toward the middle), lateral (toward the sides) rostral (toward the front end), and caudal (toward the hind end).
Here are just some of the specific ways your brain adjusts its functioning to facilitate billiard playing: Peripersonal Spatial Mapping – Your brain maintains a dynamic and plastic representation of your body and the surrounding personal space at all times. This representation is constantly being updated depending on exactly what you are doing at any given moment. If the brain could not accomplish this feat, you would be eternally bruised and sore from colliding with roommates and misjudging width and size when attempting to move through doorways, corridors, etc. These facts form the basis for the phenomenon known as ‘peripersonal spatial mapping.’
The area of space involved when we use any type of tool or implement is known as ‘peripersonal space.’ When you hold a cue or a bridge, your brain adjusts its map of your body to accommodate the spatial range of these tools, as if they were an extension of your own appendages. This allows for the accurate calculation of distance and the planning and execution of motor programs that correspond to the tools, a process that takes place in the visuomotor areas of the occipital and parietal lobes.1
The ease with which the brain can modify peripersonal spatial maps is proportional to the familiarity of elements of the situation. If you are using your cue to make a shot in billiards, your brain easily activates the corresponding map due to the familiar implementation of the tool. However if you use the cue in a new and different way, such as to hit a softball (not recommended!), your brain will need to accommodate this novel application by generating a new map. The brain is also able to accommodate changes in the environment in which the tools are used. For instance, if you are bumped off the nine-foot league table in your local pool hall and resort to playing on the bar box, your brain adjusts your peripersonal spatial map to fit the smaller table. Similarly, if you switch from your regular cue to the short cue, your brain re-calibrates the necessary components of your stroke based on this reduced spatial map.2
Occasionally, some pool players might attempt a shot using their non-dominant striking arm. In this situation, a difference between neural activation patterns in right and left handed players emerges. The spatial mapping areas of the brain of a right handed player will be active only when the right arm is used for making a shot; however, in left handed players, the brain is active regardless of which arm is used for striking. This is one piece of evidence supporting the contention that it may be easier for left- than right-handers to become ambidextrous players.3 Stance – Your posture and the position of your body can emphasize and strengthen the connection between the mind, body, and brain. For example, the mere act of leaning forward automatically increases cortical activity in the left hemisphere, an area of the brain that contributes to any type of active and motivated ‘approach’ behavior. This neural area comes online when we adjust ourselves physically to achieve a personally-relevant goal, such as when we move closer to a desired person, take part in activities such as sports, or even when we reach for a snack. The left hemisphere also governs positive emotions, thus when you lean forward over the pool table, you are not only benefiting from ‘getting down on your shot,’ but also by mimicking the same postures that are associated at the neural level with obtaining a much desired goal. This can result in a subtle feeling of excitement, which could boost your playing.4 Observational Learning – A greater area of the brain is devoted to visual processing than to any other function of humans. The human brain has separate interacting systems for object recognition and spatial processing, known as the “what” (ventral visual processing stream) and “where” (dorsal visual processing stream) pathways. These pathways extend to different brain areas, with the ventral stream projecting to the temporal lobe and the dorsal stream to the parietal lobe. Information from these divergent neural streams is integrated by the frontal lobes to produce coherent scenes that include detail and perspective. Exactly how this is accomplished by the brain, long known as the “binding problem” by psychological researchers, remains a mystery.5,6
The where pathway merges with the motor cortex and includes ‘mirror neurons’ that have both visual and motor functions. Mirror neurons were discovered by accident during studies of monkeys who either grasped an object or observed another monkey grasping the object. The investigators found that the same areas of the brain were activated regardless of the actual versus observational experience of their primate subjects. The research team proposed that mirror neurons transform visual information into knowledge by linking observed actions with stored motor representations with known outcomes. Mirror neurons fire whenever a motor program is either executed or observed, meaning that all those hours we spend watching billiard matches online can actually lead to our developing new skills. These specialized cells have the ability to transform visual information into stored motor programs.7 Stereoscopic Vision – When playing a game of pool one of the most important elements is being able to repeatedly and accurately judge depth perception of balls on the table. This is achieved through stereoscopic vision, which involves occipital and other brain areas and is necessary for converting a two-dimensional image on the retina into a three dimensional scene. Stereoscopic vision is brought about by the fact that your eyes have slightly different views of any scene, especially those displays that are within 100 feet. This slight difference, known as binocular disparity, produces a three dimensional image. Binocular disparity is most essential when we are estimating the depth of near objects (particularly when objects are within arm’s reach) because only a small degree of disparity will lead to image fusion …if too great, then we would see double.6,7 Body Awareness – An important part of the mind-body connection is the brain’s and the mind’s ability to detect and understand our body parts. In billiards we find ourselves having to execute a stroke without being able to observe the process in its entirety. Taking a shot requires us to keep our striking arm bent at a 90-degree angle with the upper arm held still and elbow loose with the forearm dangling and pendulum-like, and we must maintain this motor program without using visual monitoring. So how do we know if we are executing a shot correctly? In the absence of videotape or mirrors, we must rely upon our sense of ‘body awareness,’ or the extent to which we can coordinate motor programs through mental imagery and kinesthetic sensing rather than vision.8
Between the frontal and temporal lobes, the posterior part of a brain region called the insula corresponds to control of body and motor activities. This structure appears to be involved in joining input signals related to self-awareness to a person’s beliefs about the functioning of certain body parts. The activation of the insula leads to our feeling of being involved in some type of movement. Multiple findings suggest that bodily awareness impairments are related to right and posterior insular lesions. This type of damage appears to be linked to sensory self-monitoring deficits. For example, someone suffering from somatoparaphrenia may deny that a limb or part of their body belongs to them, and may even argue that the limb belongs to someone else. Patients with a disorder called anosognosia are convinced that their damaged or paralyzed limbs function normally.9 If the insula is damaged, our brain cannot detect parts of our body and our game will undoubtedly suffer. Force and Pocket Speed – The brain also has a mechanoreceptor system that judges and responds to external pressure and collision events. This system, located in the parietal lobe and comprised of sensory nerves, allows us to observe or imagine the trajectory of a moving object and subjectively infer the amount of force needed to launch a similar object along a similar path. Whenever we under- or overestimate pocket speed in billiards, the mechanoreceptor system also provides the necessary feedback to recalibrate and adjust the necessary force to make the shot on our next attempt.10 Making Use of Feedback – Immediately after striking the cue ball, you might at times have a moment of uncertainty or doubt about whether or not you correctly executed the shot. In these situations, body awareness is not always enough and we must rely on external cues (such as watching the object ball sink in the desired pocket) to judge our performance. Whenever we monitor the action on the table to assess our shots, an area of the brain called the rostral cingulate (RC) becomes active. The RC helps to evaluate positive and negative feedback to help us flexibly adjust behavior for best outcome on the next shot. When we fail to sink the object ball, the RC first ‘decides’ how relevant this feedback is to the situation. If it is judged to be relevant, then other areas in the frontal lobe join with the RC to re-strategize before the next shot. For example, if feedback is negative and the shot is missed, a frontal area involved in motor functioning (the ‘pre-supplemental motor area’) shoulders the burden of increasing mental control and attention so that you can adjust force and avoid a second missed shot.11 Gambling, Winning the Trophy, and Other External Rewards – Although most of us play pool for the sheer love of the game, it can also be exciting to compete for some sort of external reward such as a generous parcel of money or a large trophy. A neural network comprised of the amygdala, ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and ventral striatum (in the temporal and frontal lobes) is involved whenever we anticipate positive reinforcement, and the higher the prize, the more active the network becomes. Once we become aware of the magnitude of reward, this network of the brain sends signals to brain regions governing motor and cognitive control that then produce an estimation of the necessary amount of effort to be expended to obtain the prize.12 Saying ‘Thank You’ to Your Brain – After reading about all your brain does for you while you are busy playing, you might want to consider saying ‘thank you’ to your brain for all its hard work. There are a number of easy ways to enhance brain structure and function, including 1) getting regular aerobic exercise, 2) reducing or quitting cigarette smoking, 3) getting enough sleep, and 4) consuming more of the “super brain foods,” which include blueberries, salmon, walnuts, avocado, and green tea. You can also take an omega-3 dietary supplement if you are over the age of 45. Doing these things as often as possible is a small price to pay for all your brain does for you, especially during billiard matches. - Jan Mohlman, Ph.D. Additional Recommended Reading:
Blakeslee, S., & Blakeslee, M. (2007). The body has a mind of its own: How body maps in your brain help you do almost everything better. New York: Random House. References
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Note to Readers: This information is intended for general education purposes only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional and/or medical advice. While Dr. Mohlman cannot provide psychological advice to NYC Grind’s readers, we are happy to post and respond to comments, suggestions, and questions about her columns.