Salvatore Aglioti, an Italian neuroscientist, started thinking about the brains of basketball players while watching NBA stars react to missed free throws. He couldn’t shake the impression that the players somehow knew where the ball was going before it was even in the air. So Aglioti designed a clever experiment: He took ten pro basketball players, ten coaches, and ten sportswriters and showed them a short video of a player attempting a free throw. Not surprisingly, the players were significantly better than the others at predicting whether the shot would go in. While they got it right more than two thirds of the time, the nonplaying experts did only 44 percent of the time.
What allowed the players to make such accurate predictions? Aglioti argues that they were internally imitating the movement of the guy on the video screen, not simply making judgments based on the arc of the ball. (Unlike the coaches and writers, the players were able to make accurate predictions before the ball was even released, suggesting that they were “reading the body kinematics” of the person taking the shot.) Furthermore, the players demonstrated increased activation in the motor areas of their brain while watching the videos even though they were standing perfectly still. According to the scientists, this automatic “mirroring” of the other players is one of the crucial talents that separates the pros from the rest of us.
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