Brainy Empathy on the Basketball Court

With the preliminary rounds in men’s basketball underway at the Olympics, and Team USA vowing to bring home the gold, the smart money should be on . . . the players who can summon the most sympathy.

Literally—as in, they feel in their own arms and hands what other players are doing. According to a study released Sunday in Nature Neuroscience, that ability gives them a crucial edge in predicting whether a shot will go in, which in turn tells them whether they should start running down court or going in for a rebound. Elite basketball players are better than even veteran coaches, not to mention novices with no experience watching or playing the game, at predicting whether a shot will go in, find Salvatore Aglioti of Universite de Roma and his colleagues.

What explains the superiority? According to measurements the scientists did of elite players’ brain activity, they had significantly greater activity in their own motor cortex—especially the region responsible for moving the hand and forearm—when they were watching someone else’s shot than non-players did. They felt the other guy's moves.

In the experiment, 10 basketball players, 10 coaches and 10 sportswriters (considered non-playing experts), and novices all watched a video clip of someone attempting a free throw. The players were better at predicting whether the shot would go in: they got it right in two-thirds of the shots they saw, compared to 40 percent right for novices and 44 percent for coaches and writers.

The players were especially accurate when they had to call “in” or “out” just when the ball left the shooter’s hand. That suggests that the prediction is not based on the ball’s trajectory—it doesn’t have one at this early stage—but on the shooter’s body posture and finger position. The best players “predicted the shot’s fate by reading the body kinematics,” the scientists write. They were significantly better than non-players (even the coaches, who watch as much basketball as the players) at predicting when a free throw would miss. If it’s the last one a shooter is taking, that’s when you need to go in for the rebound.

The basis for the players' ability to predict free-throw success seems to be mirror neurons in the motor cortex. These neurons fire when we see someone else undertake some action; you can think of them as the brain’s empathy neurons, since they seem to be the basis for our ability to, literally, feel what someone else is experiencing. This neuronal activity was higher in players than in non-players, as if observing others’ actions triggered “a covert simulation of the very same action,” write the scientists. That unconscious simulation serves as the basis for the impressive accuracy in predicting whether a free throw will go in: it’s as if the players are unconsciously processing the idea of what would happen if they held their arm and fingers the way the shooter is. That requires actual shooting experience, not just watching. “Seeing without doing is not enough to achieve excellence,” the scientists conclude.

If you watch Olympics hoops, keep an eye on the phenomenal anticipatory skills of the elite players. They often know when a shot is good or not before it has even left the shooter’s fingertips. If they can’t, don’t expect to see them at the medal ceremony.