Basketballs and Brains

Basketball on basketball court, elevated view

Well, it’s NCAA basketball tournament time and, as this post hits the blog, we’re heading into the second day of “March Madness,” one of my favorite times of the collegiate sports year. Raise your hand if your brackets are already in shambles! Yeah, mine too.*

Tournament fever aside, it’s also Global Brain Awareness Week, so I started wondering how I might juxtapose basketball and brains for this post. As I started searching for connections, I found three that piqued my interest.

1. Basketball and cognitive training for increased “game intelligence”

The field of cognitive training asserts that our cognitive abilities (or “brain fitness”) can be maintained or improved by exercising our brains, like our physical fitness improves with exercise. This is the idea behind IntelliGym, a brain-training software program designed to help basketball players improve their “game intelligence.” Presented as a military strategy-type video game, it’s been developed to directly stimulate the brain functions responsible for top performance in the game of basketball and purports to help players hone those skills off the court.

Daniel Gopher, a professor of Cognitive Psychology and Human Factors Engineering at Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, is one of the minds behind IntelliGym, and served as a Scientific Advisor for its parent company. His research focus, among other things, has been complex skill acquisition and attention allocation via systematic cognitive training. Before IntelliGym, Gopher applied his research to improving attention skills in pilots of high-performance jets, including a 1994 study in which flight cadets did 10 hours of training in an attention trainer presented as a computer game. The study showed a subsequent 30 percent improvement in the cadet’s flight performance. Though contextually different, IntelliGym uses a similar approach.

On the court, Gopher said they’ve seen significant performance improvements and skill development after players use the software. “Players improve their positional awareness of themselves, their mates and opponents, and ability to predict what is going on in the game and to make fast and good decisions,” he said. In perhaps a parallel with the flight cadets, “Players quickly develop attention allocation strategies that enable them [to] better participate in the game, and also improve their spatial orientation.” Testimonials on the product’s website by high-profile NCAA coaches Jim Calhoun (University of Connecticut) and John Calipari (University of Kentucky) would seem to indicate there’s something to the IntelliGym idea.

2. Basketball and the links between emotion and memory

Studying the connections between emotion and memory as it related to things like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, brain researchers at Duke found an unlikely research aid: film of a thrilling overtime game in 2000 between Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They needed a way to measure brain activity while subjecting a person to intense emotions, a potentially ethically challenging proposition. Using the game film allowed them to observe the brain dealing with powerful, rapid-fire emotional highs and lows without any ethical worries.

In the test, 24 college-aged men from both Duke and UNC, deemed “superfans” via a basketball literacy test, were shown a tape of the matchup (Duke won it, 90-86 in overtime). They watched the whole game three times with fellow fans, then went individually into an MRI machine to watch a series of shorter clips that each ended just as the player released a shot. The fan simply had to answer whether the player made the shot or not.

Ultimately, the fans were better at remembering a made shot by their own team than either a miss by their team or a made shot by the opposition. The positive emotion associated with the made shot seemed to improve their memory and attention. Review of the MRI scan showed multiple areas of the brain working to assemble the memory: an emotional component from the amygdala reflected the fan’s connection to the game, there was a memory component from the hippocampus, empathy from the pre-frontal cortex as the subject related to the player or fans, and some activity from sensory-motor areas which seemed to indicate some imaginary “play along” by the fan. Areas that control attention lit up more for plays with a positive outcome for the fan’s team.

Curiously, a pilot study for this experiment had also included a handful of “superfan” women, but, even after viewing the game multiple times, their shot recall was too low to be useful. The researchers have apparently considered trying again with women who play basketball or using a women’s basketball game to see if that might make a difference.

3. Basketball and performance enhancements from positive touch

Whether it’s a simple hand on the shoulder, a hearty fist bump, or a creepy brush of fingertips on skin, touch can say even more than words. “It’s the first language we learn,” said Daniel Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and there’s increasing evidence it can effect clear and almost instantaneous changes in how people think and behave.

To evaluate the effects of supportive touch against performance, scientists at Berkeley analyzed physical interactions between professional basketball players. The team, led by Michael W. Kraus, took film from early season games including each team in the NBA and counted and coded every touch that occurred as a result of celebrating a positive play. Fist bumps, high fives, chest bumps, shoulder bumps, hugs and team huddles all got tallied.

With few exceptions, good teams touched more than bad teams. The Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers topped the touch-bonded list and are currently two of the league’s top teams. The mediocre Sacramento Kings and Charlotte Bobcats were least touchy. The same seemed to largely hold true for individual players. Kevin Garnett, the Celtics’ star forward, was the touchiest player, followed by Chris Bosh of the Toronto Raptors and Carlos Boozer of the Utah Jazz. Dr. Keltner noted, “Within 600 milliseconds of shooting a free throw, Garnett has reached out and touched four guys.” Admittedly, Mr. Garnett likely has some loooooong arms.

So, how could a simple high five cause better performance? Stress reduction might be the key. A positive touch may promote the release of oxytocin and its associated increased feelings of trust, and help reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol. It may be that it allows the emotional pre-frontal areas in the brain to relax and focus on tactical problem solving. Dr. Kraus, whose team’s work will be documented in a paper due out this year in the journal Emotion, acknowledged the study fell short of actually showing that touch caused the better performance, saying, “We still have to test this in a controlled lab environment.” But there does seem to be enough correlation to be interesting.

* I’m writing this blog post early, so this is a prediction, based on years of heartbreaking past experience. Bracketology apparently isn’t my forte.


  1. Cognitive Training for Basketball Game-Intelligence: Interview with Prof. Daniel Gopher. Alvaro Fernandez. SharpBrains. November 2, 2006
  2. ResearchBlogging.orgBotzung A, Rubin DC, Miles A, Cabeza R, & Labar KS (2010). Mental hoop diaries: emotional memories of a college basketball game in rival fans. The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 30 (6), 2130-7 PMID: 20147540
  3. Evidence That Little Touches Do Mean So Much. Benedict Carey. The New York Times. February 22, 2010.
  4. Tactile Communication, Cooperation, and Performance: An Ethological Study of the NBA. Kraus, Huang and Keltner.
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Caroline Sober

Caroline is a senior software developer at Promega. She’s not a scientist, so if you hear her talking about DNA purification or pipetting or current issues in bioprivacy, she’s totally faking it and you should tell her to hush. She is, however, passionate about building useful software, the interactions between people and technology in general, and how social media is changing the conversation between companies and customers. She lives in Madison with her husband, daughter, and 110-pound dog.

One thoughtful comment

  1. Your basketball/brain post brings back several memories. It makes me wonder what cognitive outcome resulted from you and Josh playing Mario Brothers through to the top level so many times…you both turned out wonderfully, so maybe there was something happening there besides entertainment.

    Watching the Spartans in this year’s tournament ties back to a few other related memories: you as a little girl running around the indoor track at Jension Fieldhouse while your Mom, Josh and I sat in the stands watching Aunt Annie play for the Spartan Women’s team; that year while we were in some Holiday Inn on our way to Texas to visit the clan and we watched 17 seconds disappear in favor of Kansas while Judd Heathcote was trying to get the clock stopped; all those Magic Johnson years.

    Now we have another exciting Tom Izzo-coached team creating more basketball/brain chemistry and memories.

    Thanks for touching us with these ideas.

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