Fast reactions are one thing, but to stay one step ahead of your opponents, you need to anticipate their next move before it even happens. Karate Kid, or Luke Skywalker using ‘the force’, may come to mind, but actually, neuroscientists and sports scientists have this skill nailed down to something called ‘Biological Motion Perception’ (BMP). Let’s have a look at what it is, and find out whether it’s a skill you can train for better performance on the field.
What is Biological Motion Perception?
BMP involves perceiving and processing many separate human movements at the same time. This information allows us to understand what type of action or communication a person is engaging in, moment to moment. This collective interpretation of body language nuances is something which feels almost automatic, such as intuiting someone’s mood as they walk into a room. In reality though, drawing on all these visual cues, is actually pretty taxing on the brain’s resources.
Why Does it Matter?
BMP is known to be a key mental skill for most sports. For example, if a defender wants to stop an oncoming attacker passing by, or making a shot, then accurate reading of body language becomes critical for taking any action. In boxing or martial arts, for instance, BMP is vital in knowing when, or when not to, throw a punch or dodge one.
BMP becomes all the more critical in fast-paced sports, where decision-making windows are often extremely short. Tennis is a great example. With serve speeds reaching up to 150mph, reacting to the actual flight trajectory of the ball is pretty much useless – it will literally have passed by the time the central nervous system starts to initiate an action response. This short video gives an idea of how fleeting the temporal dimension of sports can be.
Predicting the Future
Instead of reacting after the fact, body cues can hold tell-tale secrets of a play, before it even happens. In the case of tennis, cues such as knee bend before a jump, head angle, hip rotation, arm swing, and foot orientation, cumulatively reveal the ball’s trajectory – before it is actually hit. It’s the same thing for a baseball hitter judging a pitcher, or a soccer goalie facing down a penalty taker. In these scenarios, rapid perceptual judgments are of paramount importance.
The power of these perceptual skills was famously demonstrated by Cristiano Ronaldo, through his ability to score goals from passing crosses – without even seeing the football move.
Nature Versus Nurture
Numerous sports science studies show that elite athletes possess superior perceptual-cognitive abilities. One recent study specifically showed that athletes have better BMP skills than non-athletes, even for reading movements unrelated to sports.
It could be that to become an elite athlete, you just have to be naturally gifted in these types of mental skills in order to succeed. Or, it could be that these skills develop through years of exposure to playing high-level sports from a young age. In either case, the 64 million dollar question remains – can we specifically train BMP ability? This could be to develop elite skillsets in semi-elite or amateur athletes or to take elite athletes to the next level.
The Training Challenge
Virtual reality simulations are typically used by scientists to assess BMP ability. However, these simulations are not used for training. Professor Faubert, an expert in BMP, decided to take on the training challenge. Driven by his desire to discover ways to improve human performance, he came up with a hypothesis for using NeuroTracker. Namely, that the training could directly enhance BMP skills because of the several parallels with the tasks.
- Multiple object tracking
- Depth processing of 3D stereoscopic cues
- Selective attention demands
- Perception across a wide field of view (close-distance BMP)
Rather than trying to train a person to recognize specific movement sequences, Professor Faubert’s idea was that it would be more effective to train the fundamental brain capacities involved in BMP. If correct, this would lead to improved abilities for reading body language generally.
Close Range BMP
BMP cues literally come from head to toe. This means when you are near to someone, these visual angle needed to take all cues in at the same time becomes very wide, eliciting peripheral visual systems. Detecting and tracking cues in the periphery is much more taxing on the brain. Professor Faubert had conducted earlier research, showing that healthy older people have a significant drop in their ability to read BMP at distances of less than 4 meters.
As an example of a real-world consequence, this BMP deficit leaves elderly people susceptible to collisions when walking in busy places. For this reason, Professor Faubert wanted to see if NeuroTracker could recover these BMP skills lost to the effects of natural aging.
Professor Faubert found that 15 NeuroTracker sessions performed over 5 weeks, dramatically improved older people’s close-range BMP. The effects of the training now allowed them to accurately judge a walking direction at different distances and angles, where before they could not.
The study revealed clear and positive transfer of perceptual-cognitive training onto the ability for older people to read and predict human movement at close distances.
Performance on the Field
Professor Faubert now wants to evolve the research to see if NeuroTracker can enhance athletes’ abilities for reading sports-related actions. However, to show performance transfer, sophisticated sports-specific BMP simulations need to be created. These need to be capable of pushing professional athletes past their current BMP limits – which are already high! In order to be realistic, these simulations first require capturing the real movements of athletes and then converting them into 3D avatars. Here you can see some of the preparatory work go into soccer, with players from Montreal Impact.
So, Can You Train to Read Your Opponent’s Mind?
The scientific evidence for athletes is not in yet. However, what we do know, is that NeuroTracker training has shown clear transfer to BMP abilities and that many of the demands on the brain involved in reading human body movements are matched in the NeuroTracker task. Furthermore, countless studies show that 1-3 hours of distributed NeuroTracker training produces large gains in ability. And that this transfers to boosts in high-level cognitive functions, and also to competitive sports performance.
So if you’re interested in getting the edge on your opponent’s moves, 3D multiple object tracking looks like the best bet!
Interested in finding out three of the hidden dimensions of elite sports performance? Then read our related blog here.
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