From The New York Times
A college soccer player retaliates against an opponent by pulling her down by the ponytail. A tennis champion has a tantrum on the court, costing her a shot at winning another major title. An all-star catcher throws an elbow, touching off a brawl that puts his teammates at risk for injury.
Aggression is a basic component of human instinct. Without it, no athlete can succeed. But if it runs amok or is misguided, it can undermine the most-talented competitor. When athletes lose it — that is, lose control of their aggressive impulses — fans are right to wonder, what was he thinking? Or even, was she thinking at all?
Thinking, debated for centuries by philosophers and psychologists, has more recently been the subject of extensive neuroscientific investigation that explores it at the level of brain cells and brain circuits. Humans, we now know, are born with an instinctual brain surrounded by a thinking brain.
The instinctual brain, which evolved first, consists of interwoven nodes of nerve cells, called neurons, whose job is to preserve the organism’s integrity and survival. Instinctual behavior includes hunting and eating, affiliating for play and reproduction, and detecting and responding to threat. The instinctual brain, which makes rapid, if crude, all-or-nothing assessments about danger, is the seat of intuition and of gut feelings like dread and aggression. It is wired to initiate complex, reflexive movements, many of them aggression-laden, like diving for a fumble or smashing a crosscourt backhand, actions that would be impossible to perform effectively if one had to think about them.
But a highly functioning instinctual brain is not enough to ensure success at the highest levels of sports, and if it leads to reckless behavior, it can cause an athlete to fail, or to self-destruct.
This is where the thinking brain comes into play. The thinking brain, the cerebral cortex, consists of the outermost layers of neurons, which interact with one another and with the instinctual brain’s neurons.
In humans, the thinking brain developed in complexity along with the evolution of language, judgment, voluntary movement, planning and impulse control. These capacities enabled man to protect his vulnerable body from predators, to adapt to his environment and to become the dominant species. The thinking brain is where rules reside — rules for society, and rules for games.
Read the rest of this article at the NY Times HERE.
Author Credit: By JEFF DEITZ