Brain Ball

In the Titans' draft room last April, GM Floyd Reese looked at a board bursting with qb talent. Holding the third overall pick, Reese had his choice of USC's Matt Leinart, Vanderbilt golden boy Jay Cutler and Vince Young, who had just led Texas to a national title.

On first look, Reese thought Young seemed perfect. He was a younger, faster version of the man who had marshaled Tennessee for nine years, Steve McNair. Problem was, the 6'4" Houston native had been sullied by one of the rustiest—if most trusted—tools in the NFL's talent evaluation shed: the Wonderlic. A reported low score on the exam had team honchos wondering whether Young could handle the complexities of an NFL game plan.

Ultimately, Reese trusted his eyes, not a cookiecutter test that had been in vogue since before Young's mother was born. In return, the QB made the GM look like a genius. Young has flourished as a starter—leading the Titans to upsets of the Eagles, Giants and Colts—and proved the Wonderlic is as accurate a predictor of success as tarot cards.

Revolutions happen. Moneyball, a book about the Oakland A's front office, turned baseball on its ear by revealing the value of players with overlooked stats. But there are other untapped resources even more fundamental to achieving success in sports.

None more so than the brain, the least understood asset of all. New studies are slowly unraveling the mysteries of memory and how we learn, but each new revelation only highlights how little we actually know. "It's easy to tell who's a great athlete by watching him jump, run and pass," says Reese. "The hard part is gambling the future of your organization on intangibles."

What Reese wants to know is what the rest of the sports world should be asking: Who is inventing Brainball?

WHEN YOUNG stepped to the line facing fourth and 10 against the Giants on Nov. 26, 100 billion neurons were firing in his brain. With his team down by seven with less than three minutes to go, Young scanned the defensive formation and saw Giants rookie end Mathias Kiwanuka settling into his stance.

Actually, the figure Young recognized as Kiwanuka began as a ray of light, entering the QB's retina and following a chain of fibers to the visual cortex, where it was processed as No. 97. We each have so many images stored in our cortices that we could probably walk into our third-grade classroom right now and recognize it as if we'd never left. Add touch, smell, taste and hearing to the mix, and the brain catalogs a ridiculous amount of data. A post office in the middle of it, the thalamus, sorts it all out before delivering it to the frontal lobes, where it is turned into a plan of action. At the snap, Kiwanuka closed and then wrapped his arms around Young, but he made the mistake of thinking Young had thrown the ball. Young's reflex—etched in his neural pathways—was to feel his way out of Kiwanuka's grasp and run. He raced toward the right sideline, spied an oncoming tackler, faked a pass to freeze the opponent, then juked inside before racing back toward the sideline. Nineteen yards later, he had a first down. Four plays after that, he threw the game-tying TD pass.

Experts have long assumed that Eli Manning, who got the ball next, was a sure thing. A player's experience plays an essential role in programming the brain. "It's the software that runs the frontal lobe," says Julian Bailes, a neurosurgeon and former physician for the Steelers. "And positivity is something that can be imprinted on that software. Great QBs have it." Genetics, Bailes says, is part of the equation too, providing machinery to react to the brain's commands. In both categories, Manning comes from the best stock.

But nothing about the brain is simple. Just when the neural pathways are about to deliver perfection, the amygdala, an almond-shape nugget that is believed to be one of memory's storehouses, can let loose a nasty dose of self-doubt. Manning was virtually flawless for three quarters against the Titans, but he'd also played poorly in his previous two games. When he returned to the field after Young's touchdown, he played as though his amygdala was running the show. His second pass was picked off. Three plays later, the Titans kicked a game-winning field goal.

The process that leads to successes like Young's and failures like Manning's plays out in milliseconds, and the intangibles that influence a performance arise without rhyme or reason. Asked whether science is close to predicting why some players perform better in the clutch, Bailes shrugs. He knows the answer floats in that soupy, threepound mass of blood, electricity and spinal fluid.

Damned if he knows where, though.

For years, brain research veered between wacky theories and static images. But it took a quantum leap in 1991, when scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital tested a noninvasive procedure—called a functional MRI—that showed the flow of blood in the brain: Where blood rushes is where work is being done. Grant requests mushroomed as researchers moved to use the new technology to decode brain function.

The fMRI machine at the West Virginia University Health Sciences Center, where Bailes is the head of neurosurgery, is a two-ton monster that fills up an entire room. Its magnets are so powerful that a stapler left too close to the machine would careen into it at 70 mph. At full blast, it emits a 100-decibel shriek that makes your mom's old vacuum cleaner sound like Muzak.

On a recent afternoon, Michael Parsons, an associate professor of behavioral medicine, was studying a subject who was typing a series of letters she was asked to memorize as she lay inside the machine. On a color-coded screen, Parsons saw big blotches of yellow and red in her frontal lobes, signifying what he calls hot learning, meaning the brain is at work completing a task. After the patient viewed the same pattern of letters several times, her brain scan changed. Now there was a smaller, more concentrated blue blotch—Parsons calls this cooling—in the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain right behind the nose and eyes). This was visual proof that the patient had learned and stored the information. In the same way, when a player repeats a route, he etches it in his own neural pathways. The etchings get deeper with each repetition. Practice, in effect, makes perfect.

Other studies have found that when our neural pathways are sufficiently etched with memories, we can visualize an action without actually doing it and still cause the brain's planning centers to light up. In other words, we can practice without touching a ball. "I tell third- and fourth-stringers that visualizing is a good way to get quality reps," says David McDuff, the Ravens team psychiatrist.

Being able to watch how quickly a brain learns is an amazing scientific accomplishment that would seem to have enormous potential for pro sports. Imagine if a team could know that the quarterback it was thinking of drafting had the ability to master the playbook by the midpoint of his first season rather than the beginning of his third. But the medical world has better things to do than help athletes play games, so funding for sports-related studies is sparse. (Studies that do get funded have more to do with medical issues, like concussions.) The decisionmakers who hold the financial purse strings want to cure cancer, not help Drew Bledsoe get a new job.

That's why the cutting edge of brain research in sports is in a cramped office on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where an intense man with a white mustache looks into the hearts of Little Leaguers.

"PEOPLE ARE paying big bucks for bulls—," Roland Carlstedt says in the windowless office of the Brain Resource Company.

With its Jetsons-style furniture, the place feels like the set for a pilot that never made it onto the Sci Fi Channel. Judging from its website, the Australia-based company wants to be a kind of Brain Depot for all of America. It offers help to employers seeking qualified workers, and solutions to patients suffering from ailments like attention deficit disorder. It has more than 4,000 brain scans on file, making it a research destination for scientists at the National Institutes of Health. Carlstedt, a 54-year-old psychologist, is the head of what the company calls its athlete brain-processing project.

If the eye is a window onto the soul, the heart is a window onto the brain. Or so Carlstedt believes. In the mid-1990s, Carlstedt, a former pro tennis player and coach pursuing a Ph.D. in psychology, decided to base his thesis on exploration of that window. He put a wireless heart monitor on a 16-year-old tennis prodigy during three matches, then spent the next year pairing each recorded heartbeat to court action he had filmed. He found the subject did best when his heart beat slowest, worst when it beat fastest. That surprised him. He had expected peak performance to come when heart rate was highest, energizing the body.

Looking for an explanation, Carlstedt created a grid that married his neurological research to three settled psychological concepts: Everyone has the capacity to get into a hypnotic zone; everyone dredges up bad memories at the worst moments—which Carlstedt calls clutter—and everyone has an innate ability to stop that clutter from interfering with frontal lobe planning (Carlstedt calls this subliminal coping). Think of that last state as having an internal traffic cop who keeps the brain's HOV lane clear. When Carlstedt published his protocol in 2001, a review board at the American Psychological Association was wowed by the way his matrix demystified the emotional component of athletic performance. Carlstedt was given the APA's award for the best sports dissertation. One peer reviewer called it "a watershed in the annals of research in sport psychology" and said he "would not be surprised if it became a classic in its field."

Last summer, Carlstedt followed 10 young teens on a traveling baseball team called the Manhattan Gothams. Armed with his matrix and granted total cooperation, he set out to discover the key to performing under pressure.

Before the season began, he put each kid through a battery of tests to place him on the grid. Carlstedt's ideal player is blessed with high hypnotic susceptibility (the better to get into the zone), low introspection (fewer bad thoughts) and high coping (so the highway stays clear). Before and after each player's at-bats, Carlstedt wired him to a heart-rate machine. He gathered data all season long—more than 1,400 combined at-bats that yielded seven unique stress levels. He claims his grid accurately predicted what each player would do in high-pressure situations 87% of the time. Using grid placement as a guide, he taught the kids mind-body focus exercises and watched their stats skyrocket. With runners in scoring position, the team's batting average went from .351 to .427, and its slugging percentage increased to .608 from .457.

Sure he had made a breakthrough, Carlstedt—whose only major client was the Polish Tennis Federation—sent what he thought would be a buzzworthy press release to every GM in major league baseball. He got just one nibble, from an NL team, which led nowhere. Too bad, because as the Ravens' McDuff said after reviewing Carlstedt's work at the request of The Magazine, "there's real science there."

Carlstedt's protocol applies to a 14-year-old cleanup hitter, but it could just as easily apply to Vince Young. And if the brain's mysteries can be decoded and its idiosyncrasies tamed, GMs like Reese won't have to rely on their gut anymore. On draft day, a prospect's ability to perform in the clutch becomes as quantifiable, as valuable, as his time in the 40. Experts claim genetic engineering will be the next big thing in sports. But Brainball has a more accessible and intriguing future.

The search for a functional athletic IQ is the last frontier. Defining and measuring intelligence as it applies to athletics—and not demeaning it as just instinct—has huge potential. There aren't many more boundaries that can be pushed; the upside for equipment, for supplements and for crunching stats is limited. The upside for Brainball?