Last night in the NBA Western Conference Finals, the San Antonio Spurs beat the Memphis Grizzlies behind an impressive effort from 37-year-old center Tim Duncan. The Spurs had to overcome a significant deficit after starting slowly in the first quarter. Duncan, who was determined to lead his team to victory, is frequently asked about his age these days. ”I’m not worried about how old I am or whatever, whatever it may be,” Duncan said. ”I’m very focused on having another opportunity to make it to a championship and try to win, that’s all.”
Focused. There it is again. That ability to block out the background noise and focus on the task at hand.
As I watched the game, I immediately thought of a study newly published by researchers in the Vision & Cognitive Neuroscience lab at the University of Rochester. In the study, individuals watched short video clips of black and white bars moving across a computer screen. Their task was to identify in which direction the bars were moving. The bars were presented in three sizes, with the smallest version restricted to the central circle where human motion perception is known to be optimal, and increased from there. Participants also took a standardized intelligence test.
You can give it a try:
Independent of intelligence, all subjects were best at correctly perceiving the bars when looking at the small circle. But how about when subjects were trying to detect motion with larger images? Higher IQs were associated with worse performance. That is, subjects with the highest IQs were slowest to detect motion under those conditions.
“That counter-intuitive inability to perceive large moving images is a perceptual marker for the brain’s ability to suppress background motion, the authors explain. In most scenarios, background movement is less important than small moving objects in the foreground…. The brain is bombarded by an overwhelming amount of sensory information, and its efficiency is built not only on how quickly our neural networks process these signals, but also on how good they are at suppressing less meaningful information [my emphasis]. ‘Rapid processing is of little utility unless it is restricted to the most relevant information.’ the authors conclude.” (from the U of R press release)
As far as I know, this study has not been conducted with elite athletes, so I’ll get busy on that… In the meantime, I expect that elite athletes would show a similar ability to ignore background movement/information. Tim Duncan sure seems like he has that kind of focus.