How Neuroplasticity Helped Get The Red Sox Into The World Series

Its the stuff every young baseball player dreams of - down by a run in the bottom of the 7th inning with the bases loaded in game 6 of the American League Championship Series.  With a chance to become a legend, Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino tried to focus at the plate.  "I was just trying to tie the game," Victorino told ESPN. "I wasn't thinking grand slam, hit it out of the park, any of that. I was just trying to put the ball in play, to give us another chance."

Instead, he launched an 0-2 pitch from right-handed pitcher Jose Veras over the Green Monster in left field for a grand slam, giving the Sox a 5-2 lead over the Detroit Tigers.  The lead would hold up sending Boston to the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals.

For Victorino, it was a milestone in his year-long journey to stay productive in the batter’s box.  As a switch hitter since 2002, a series of injuries this season convinced him to focus on just one side of the plate, which required his eyes and brain to relearn how to hit right-handed pitchers as a right-handed batter.

"It's tough to hit from one side of the plate, let alone be a switch-hitter," Victorino told Over the last ten years and hundreds of at-bats, his pitch recognition and timing was always from the side of the plate opposite the pitcher’s throwing arm.  It was a gamble to commit to just one side and required plenty of batting practice to change his visual perception habits.

"It shows something about the makeup and what kind of player he is -- fearless," Boston hitting coach Greg Colbrunn said. "If Shane's confident in it, I'm confident in it."

No one understands how difficult this is better than Miguel Nicolelis, professor of neurobiology at Duke University School of Medicine.  At his Center for Neuroengineering lab, Nicolelis and his team have been studying the brain’s ability to adapt to new sensory input when old stimuli are no longer available.  A common example of this neuroplasticity is a patient who has to learn how to use a prosthetic arm or leg.

This summer, Nicolelis published new research showing for the first time that vision plays a role in the brain’s somatosensory system, which constantly adjusts our internal map of our body’s positioning in the world.  Since this area of the brain and the motor cortex, which controls our movements, don’t receive direct input from our visual system, this result was a breakthrough for understanding how different parts of our brain communicate.

“The study shows for the first time that the somatosensory or touch cortex may be influenced by vision, which goes against everything written in neuroscience textbooks,” said Nicolelis. “The findings support our theory that the cortex isn’t strictly segregated into areas dealing with one function alone, like touch or vision.  The cortical areas of the brain are processing multiple streams of information at the same time instead of being segregated as we previously thought.”

In this 2012 TED Talk, Nicolelis explains his work to understand how our brain sends signals to our muscles to make movements.

For Victorino or any baseball hitter, learning how to recognize pitches from different points of view requires a high number of repetitions, which can be difficult to rack up just with live batting practice. What this latest research demonstrates is that visual and neuro training may be more important than the actual physical act of hitting a ball.

As Nicolelis concludes, “As we become proficient in using tools – a violin, tennis racquet, computer mouse, or prosthetic limb – our brain is likely changing its internal image of our bodies to incorporate the tools as extensions of ourselves.”

For Shane Victorino, that also seems to have worked for baseball bats.