SPECIAL CONTENTS Training the“Athletic Brain Article 9 (Part 2 of 2) | Apr. 26, 2017

Understanding Athletes’ “Skill” and “State of Mind” with Virtual Reality Technology (Part 2)

Risk-takers are suited for sports competitions?

For the Sports Brain Science Project, researchers are using virtual reality (VR) technology to explore responses of the mind and body. They have discovered differences depending on whether participants have previous sports experience. They have discovered diverse responses, such as those who show no reaction at all when hit (virtually) by a pitch, and those who show fear. Senior Researcher Dr.Toshitaka Kimura discusses the possibilities and future prospects of measurements using VR based on these findings.

People who react, people who do not or cannot react

—You discussed differences in the movements and behavioral responses of people experienced in sports and those without experience as measured by VR technology. What other differences have you discovered?

Kimura: One fascinating difference is the reaction to beanballs flying toward their heads. In the experiment, beanballs are occasionally mixed in with other pitches. In the case of an expert baseball player, we saw that he skillfully moved his head back to avoid the beanball. However, the movements of beginners were scattered. There were those who could not skillfully avoid the ball, or did not have time to avoid the ball. Because beginners themselves were slow in their movements, we assumed that in many cases, they would not be able to avoid the ball in time. What we did not expect was that there were beginners who showed no reaction at all.

—You mean they did not flinch even when hit by the ball?

Kimura: Right. Of course, because the environment is virtual, they are not really hit by the ball. But a usually person reacts automatically even when they know the situation is VR. It is thought that, in the first place, organisms are naturally equipped with avoidance behavior. But there were participants who unexpectedly didn’t react, or couldn’t react. What’s more, we found that there was no relationship to their age or gender.

Kashino: This is really unexpected. I heard recent news about an increase in elementary schoolchildren who are injured when they trip because they don’t stick out their hands to break their fall and their head hits the ground. The results of your experiment may show that what are called innate reflexes—functions thought to be inborn—might actually depend a large part on learning. Or, it may be that differences in individuals play a large part in reflexive responses. Brain science is an extremely fascinating field.

Kimura: Even if avoidance behavior is innate, movements such as avoidance are becoming infrequent in our highly advanced human society, so people may be losing this function. I want to understand such a phenomenon through this research.

What are qualities of people suited for sports?

Kashino: One more interesting thing about mixing beanballs in pitches is that it shows human nature in the dilemma of decision-making. To hit a ball, you must of course step toward the pitch. But if you step toward the pitch, you could be hit by the ball. You are faced with choosing to accept risk or accept safety. What’s more, if you make the wrong choice, you can be seriously injured. This question is greatly related to human nature.

Right now, research related to decision-making is an active area in brain science. But there are almost no experiments are being carried out under conditions where major consequences result from the exposure to danger. So I think our research is deeply significant in this regard.

What’s more, our research is novel in that it studies not decision-making without the thought process, but rather implicit brain function underlying unconscious reactions. If we understand the features of implicit brain function responsible for phenomena like “I can’t move enough I know I should” and “My body moved involuntarily,” I think our findings will be useful to improving sports skills for each person.

Kimura: I think it is extremely fascinating that the type of people who take risks and the type who are cautious can be distinguished on the level of implicit brain function. Even if a person thinks he is the cautious type, on the unconscious level he may be the risk-taking type.

Kashino: There is a variety of people, even among professional athletes. There are baseball players who don’t step into the batter’s box unless they wear protective gear due to the trauma of being hit by a ball in the past, and there are those who boldly attack pitches even though they had bones broken by beanballs. Flourishing athletes are those who produce results because they take risks to a greater or lesser extent.

Or, it could be that a player’s reaction to the next pitch after facing a backward fall-inducing inside pitch differs greatly depending on the person. You see this when earthquakes happen. Even though it is said that a cataclysmic earthquake occurs only once every 1000 years, everyone who experiences it is affected one way or another. In short, the perception of something differs from one person to the next. Decisions concerning risks are not something logical based on statistics. They are greatly governed by each person’s nature.

Kimura: To put it in an extreme way, a person who is too cautious is probably not suited for sports competitions. This is because no matter how skillfully a cautious person controls his body movements, he won’t take a step in and try to hit the ball. There are probably also differences between people’s types in terms of implicit brain function and explicit brain function. I want to clarify how they diverge by using VR measurements.

—What further functions will be added going forward?

Kimura: Right now, when the ball is hit, you hear the crack of the bat. I want to increase the reality of this sound. I also want to reproduce the sensation of the bat when the user hits the ball. Also, to study responses when the ball suddenly disappears or when the timing of the ball’s sound changes, I plan to change or tune a variety of conditions. What’s more, I want to elucidate the brain information processing mechanisms that lie beneath the essence of superior “skill” and “state of mind” that top athletes possess. What do pro athletes see? I want to understand their brain processes.

I want to show the secret of skillfully controlling the body

— Incidentally, I heard that you yourself play a variety of sports.

Kimura: I played baseball from the time I was an elementary school student, and belonged to a soft baseball club until junior high school. When I got to high school, I switched completely and joined the rugby team. This might be due to the influence of the TV drama “School Wars.” Just when I became a junior high school student, Waseda University’s rugby team beat a corporate team and became the champion in Japan. Student rugby became all the rage, and I thought, I want to try it. Because I grew up in Sendai, and my parents are from Hokkaido, I’ve also skied my whole life.

—How are the characteristics of each sport different?

Kimura: They’re completely different. You face off against other players in baseball and rugby, but the skills you demonstrate in your relationship with your opponent is different. Both sports make use of interesting tactics, but in baseball, preparation and “reading” the situation are critical, because a single play can make a big difference. In rugby, on the other hand, you need the ability to judge and respond to the situation while the clock is ticking. Meanwhile, skiing is a sport you can enjoy by yourself, so I concentrate on how to skillfully use my body. For each sport, there are areas where the problem awareness is different. I think this sense of problem awareness is helpful to this research.

—Has your research always been related to sports?

Kimura: Yes. I was interested in sports originally, and conducted research on exercise when I was an undergraduate. At first, I studied muscles, the so-called engine of the body. I was interested in how to build muscles proficiently and how to develop a body that doesn’t get tired. However, around that time, I realized that the problem of how to build muscles was not the same as how to skillfully control muscles. So, since graduate school I have conducted research on controlling the body. When I first began grad school, however, most research was done in labs, so I couldn’t make much progress in the area of sports research. Since then, wearable devices have made great strides. I also encountered Dr. Kashino. So I was able to finally carry out the research I’m working on right now.

Kashino: We met each other quite a while ago. But you actually kicked off your research about three years ago, right?

Kimura: Right. Dr. Kashino’s field of expertise is auditory perception, so I didn’t have any contact with sports as a specialty. But we both liked sports and often chatted with each other about it. This led to my joining sports-related study group.

Kashino: This is certainly an epoch-making study group. In the first place, until now that there haven’t been many points of contact between sports science and brain science. Even their technical languages were mutually incomprehensible. During this state of affairs, Dr. Kimura, who had studied under Professor Kimitaka Nakazawa of Tokyo University, established a study group with Dr. Tetsuya Ijiri, who had been a member of Professor Nakazawa’s lab. This was how full-scale research began.

Another major factor in the acceleration of this research was the remarkable advances in VR technology, wearable devices, and machine learning in recent years. They made experiments in this research possible.

Kimura: Tokyo will host the 2020 Olympics. So great expectations are being placed on us. To meet them, I want to not only elucidate brain functions, but also develop systems that can be used for athletes’ actual training. In the first place, a difference between experienced athletes and beginners is whether their movements are ingrained. Actually, this is a matter of whether the brain remembers these movements. Well, then, how can we help the brain remember body movements? Just as one can’t imitate a top athlete simply by watching a video of his movements, we can’t learn how a body moves skillfully just by analyzing brain functions and body movements. We need to work on an approach that probes deeply into these areas.

—What approach are you specifically considering?

Kimura: For example, a pitcher just doesn’t throw the ball with his shoulder and arm muscles. He uses his entire body. The better a pitcher is, the more proficiently he coordinates the muscles of his entire body and pitches the ball with fine control. While we can’t imitate all movements, if we can extract the combination patterns of major muscles, we may be able to get glimpses of how skilled pitchers perform. In short, if we understand the skills needed to control pitches by targeting and focusing on major areas, we can show the path to improving pitching. Right now, we are in the middle of developing methodologies and systems for this area of research.

(Text revised: April 17, 2018)

(Japanese text written by Madoka Tainaka)

Toshitaka Kimura, Ph.D.
Sports Brain Science Project, NTT Communication Science Laboratories

Next: Article 10 (Part 1 of 2) Zeroing in on the Secrets of Top Athletes
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