I was sitting in my college dorm room, working on some engineering homework, but I just couldn’t focus. My mind kept wandering back to the game. How could I have played so poorly? My teammates must hate me. Did I cost us a chance at the playoffs?
In college I played on the varsity baseball team and studied mechanical engineering. I worked hard on the practice team for 2 years and finally got my shot to start at third base as a junior. But things weren’t going according to plan. Third base has a long throw across the infield to first base, and I was having trouble making the throw accurately. By itself, this wasn’t unusual; every player goes through his funks and eventually works out of it. But despite hours of extra practice, I was stuck in a rut. My frustration culminated in a game in which I committed 4 throwing errors and we lost to an important division opponent by 1 run. My teammates had battled tooth and nail to make it a close game, and I literally threw it all away.
At this point I was desperate and willing to look anywhere for help. My eyes returned to my homework. It was for my Engineering Dynamics class, in which we covered the equations that describe the motion of objects and the forces that generate those motions. Maybe I could come up with an equation that would help me throw the ball accurately to first base?
My Engineering Dynamics class had taught me that I could estimate where the ball would end up if I controlled the force and direction of my throw [Projectile Motion]. That didn’t seem too hard. Then I remembered about fluid mechanics, and things got a little more complicated. It turned out that as the baseball flies through the air, it is influenced by the spin of the ball [Bend it Like Magnus] and the orientation of the red laces that create a rough surface on the ball [Turbulence]. Still not too bad; I could control those things: force, direction, spin, and laces. Then I recalled that wind speed [Drag], elevation, and temperature [Air Density] can dramatically change the path of the baseball. At this point I was starting to feel like my head was getting crowded: force, direction, spin, laces, wind speed, elevation, temperature. It was a lot to consider, but it seemed doable. I was an engineer, after all.
Now, how was I going to control these variables? A typical engineering approach is to start at the end and work backwards to the beginning. In this case, the engineering equations had told me what forces my hand needed to generate in order to throw the ball to first base. Now, working backwards, I could calculate the torques at my wrist, elbow, shoulder, and torso that would generate those forces. The last step was to find the pattern of muscle activity that would generate the joint torques [Inverse Dynamics]. Done. I had completely reverse-engineered my throw and was ready for a much more important test than any midterm or final.
I took the field with renewed excitement and gradually began to notice an effect…the more I thought about the equations the worse I got! These equations were complicated and the variables changed constantly; how could my brain possibly keep track of all the variables and compute the necessary calculations? I tried adjusting the spin of the ball by changing the pressure on each of my fingers. The ball sailed over the first baseman’s head. I tried focusing on the torque at my shoulder, but lost track of the torque at my elbow and the ball dive-bombed into the dirt. On one throw everything in my body felt good, and then a gust of wind picked up and caused the ball to slow down in midair, flutter like a wounded duck, and plop down a few feet short of first base. Exasperated, I looked around at my teammates and saw them effortlessly throwing the ball wherever they wanted. I knew that they hadn’t worked out all the equations I had come up with. In fact, I was pretty sure that most professional baseball players don’t have an engineering background. So what was I missing?
It was at this point that I realized my engineering background could only take me so far. It was time to start exploring a new route. I started with the question I was faced with before: the equations I had worked out were complicated and the variables changed constantly; how does the brain keep track of it all? In fact there were many aspects of this system that hadn’t even entered into my calculations, such as tired muscles or cold fingers. How can the brain possibly consider the seemingly infinite number of important details? And then there were the psychological implications of high-pressure situations or heckling by the opposing fans. How do they impact the ability of the brain and body to perform? At each new question I kept returning to the same thought: what kind of magic was going on in my brain?
As I got sucked deeper and deeper into thinking about these questions, my focus gradually shifted away from throwing a baseball and toward a better understanding of this fascinating and awe-inspiring thing that sits between our ears and directs our every movement. I discovered that there was a professor in the Biomedical Engineering Department who had played baseball in college and now studied the activity of individual neurons in the brain during voluntary movement. Baseball gave us the connection, but what I was really interested in was the brain. I began helping out with the research in his lab and started to see the brain as the ultimate engineer, capable of learning and implementing complex strategies to control our movements in this ever-changing, complicated world we live in. Quite honestly, what I found surprised me. We’re not really sure how the brain works. Granted, there are a few theories that have enabled some truly astounding technologies, but consider the simple example of a computer and a child playing chess.
The computer can be programmed to have nearly perfect strategy and win the game every time. The computer is the expert at the theory behind the game. But when it comes to actually reaching out to pick up and move the pieces, that is where the child is the expert. The child can easily look at the board, find his piece, pick it up, and move it to the next square. For a computer to accomplish the same thing, it would have to combine state-of-the-art technology in computer vision, control theory, and robotic manipulation. And still it wouldn’t be as good as the child in handling minor changes or uncertainties, such as the position of the board that would change if the table was bumped, or the colors of the scene that could change with different lighting, or the texture of the pieces that might change due to some sticky residue from the child’s fruit snacks. Yes, computers and robots are experts in theory and in perfectly controlled environments, like the inside of your computer or even some factories. But the world we live in is fundamentally imperfect. It is constantly changing and the ability of our brains to grapple with that change, to have the flexibility and adaptability to operate in an uncertain environment, is what captured my curiosity and hooked me on studying motor control.
The last 2 years of my baseball career ended disappointingly. I struggled through the rest of my junior year and was replaced at third base by a new freshman the following season. But I wasn’t too upset. I had stumbled upon the brain, the ultimate engineer, and I wanted to learn as much as I could about what type of magic was going on in there. I always knew that I would never be a professional baseball player, but I never would have guessed that my pursuit of a more accurate throw would have launched me to where I am now: a graduate student immersed in the magic of how the brain learns and implements strategies to elegantly control our bodies. And yes, that even includes throwing a runner out at first base.