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‘You Can’t Think and Hit at the Same Time’: Dr. Sheth Helps us Understand Cognitive Control

Baseball player at bat/cognitive controlBaseball legend Yogi Berra said it: “You can’t think and hit at the same time.” If you’ve ever tried to hit a baseball, you know exactly what he meant.

Your brain has to make so many decisions and adjustments in the split second a baseball is coming at you that you can’t stop to think about what to do. If you stop to think, you’ve already missed the ball.

How does your brain process all that information so quickly? That’s what Columbia Neurosurgeon Dr. Sameer Sheth spoke about recently at the American Academy of Neurological Surgery’s 78th Annual Meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Dr. Sheth is the Director of the Functional and Cognitive Neurophysiology Laboratory, which focuses on the study of human behavior and cognitive processes, including decision making. This means that he is keenly interested in finding out how our brains manage to do things like enable us to hit fastballs.

“A major league ballplayer has less than half a second to read the spin, movement and velocity of a ball and make the necessary physical adjustments to pull his hands in for an inside pitch or delay his swing the slightest amount for an off-speed pitch,” said Dr. Sheth in his presentation.

He explained that this group of mental processes that allow the ballplayer to make those split-second decisions is called “cognitive control.” Cognitive control is how we allocate mental resources to get the best possible performance. It’s what lets us focus on relevant information, ignore irrelevant information and adjust our behavior on the fly. It’s how ballplayers adjust to a pitch, and it’s how we successfully do things like drive on a busy highway.

Dr. Sheth talked to attendees at the conference about how, with the help of some of his patients, he was recently able to get a glimpse into exactly what the brain does to process information during decision making.

Dr. Sheth treats many patients whose conditions require electrode (thin wire) implants in the brain. When the patients then perform simple decision-making tasks, such as a simple video game, Dr. Sheth can record the brain activity measured by the electrodes. By studying the data from the electrodes, Dr. Sheth has found that decision making is all about how well our brains coordinate information.

Our brains contain billions of nerve cells called neurons. Neurons gather and transmit signals to other parts of the brain, and to the rest of the body. These signals contain information. Dr. Sheth found that when we make a decision, neurons in one part of the brain gather up information about the decision and transmit it quickly to neurons in other parts of the brain.

These other parts of the brain receive the signals and have to coordinate incoming information with outgoing signals that tell the body how to move. The more complex a task is, the faster the neurons fire to transmit the information. The faster our brains can coordinate these different signals, the better we can time our reactions. And it all happens in the blink of an eye, much faster than our conscious thoughts could process what’s going on.

Dr. Sameer Sheth
Dr. Sameer Sheth

Those professional baseball players? Their brains are very, very good at coordinating and transmitting signals—as long as they don’t stop to think about what they’re doing.

Learn more about Dr. Sheth at his bio page here.

Image Credit: ©[Angelo_Giordano]/pixabay

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