The brain specialists on the UC Riverside campus might have proved Yogi Berra right: 90% of baseball really is mental, regardless of Yogi's calculations about "the other half."
The Highlanders baseball team can thank the neuroscience department for about 42 more runs and five wins last season, according to a study published online Monday in the journal Current Biology.
Nineteen of the players took part in an experiment aimed at sharpening the way their visual cortex processes stimuli, improving their visual acuity by an average of 31%, according to the study.
On the field, the players laid off bad pitches and saw the good ones much better, getting fewer strikeouts and scoring or batting in more runs, according to the study.
Researchers compared the output of the Riverside players to that of a control group of 78 similar league players, and found the Highlanders' improvements exceeded what would be expected from simply maturing and playing additional games.
The experiment may have been a boost to the baseball program, which nonetheless had a losing 22-32 last season, but the science aims more at improving the sight of more than 100 million people worldwide with serious vision impairment, said the study's lead investigator Aaron R. Seitz, a cognitive neuroscientist at the university who specializes in perceptual learning.
"What we think we're doing is improving the brain's ability to read out information from the eyes," Seitz said.
The 19 players came to the lab for 30 sessions of looking at patterns for 25 minutes, and their results were compared with those of 18 pitchers who didn't undergo the training. The patterns, known as Gabor patches, have been shown to stimulate neurons in the early visual cortex, Seitz said.
All of the players were pretty sharp-sighted to begin with, with few significant differences among them. But the eye chart results for those who underwent the training were at times astonishing – Seitz had to move some of the players 40 feet away from a standard eye chart, and they read right down to the bottom line.
Seven of the players scored 20/7.5, meaning they could read from 20 feet what mere mortals would be able to read from 7.5 feet or closer.
Still, such training is notoriously difficult to translate to the real world and, after all, baseball is played on a field, not on paper, and not in a lab.
"When we first spoke with the coach, what he said was if you can make a 1% difference in their playing it would be huge," Seitz said. "Baseball at a collegiate level is highly competitive, so anything that gives them any edge has a big impact in determining if they're going to win or lose a game."
Seitz and his colleagues became Highlander fans, compiling and analyzing the team's results through the 2013 season, and comparing them with control groups and previous seasons. Post-doctoral student Jenni Deveau and psychology professor Daniel J. Ozer applied the statistical methods made famous by Bill James, whose "Pythagorean theorem of baseball" revolutionized the analysis of the sport, depicted in the book and movie "Moneyball."
"I must admit that I'm now becoming a baseball fan," Seitz said. "Whenever the UCR team was playing, I would just be checking the scores every five minutes on my phone."
Baseball coach Doug Smith told researchers that his players' judgment of the strike zone improved, leading them to get on base more often and drive in or score more runs.
The researchers will continue to work with the baseball team and are expanding the experiment to the women's softball team and the basketball program.
That will give Seitz and his team a much bigger sample than the 19 players, only 11 of whom played in two seasons. Researchers also will use brain scanning and other techniques to figure out what aspect of visual processing is changing.