How Football Players React To Sound On The Field

Russell Wilson
For as much as we hear about the importance of vision on the football field, there are quite a few phrases emphasizing the sounds of the game, such as “he heard footsteps coming”, “listen for the audible at the line”, “play until you hear the whistle” and even the backhanded compliment to the ears, “he has eyes in the back of his head.”

Listening is a skill to be exploited for better anticipation, reactions and decision-making.  Now, neuroscience researchers have filled in some missing details of how we actually use the sounds around us to instantly direct our muscles to take action.

To appreciate the benefit of listening during a game, NFL Films mic'd up the Seahawks' QB Russell Wilson in week 17 last season.  As you watch (and listen) to the video below, focus your ears on the verbal communications and noisy environment on the sidelines, in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage.  A player's auditory processing must be just as active as his visual sense.

So, how do our brains take in all of those sound waves, separate the signal from the noise and then instantly make decisions on how our muscles should react?  Neuroscientists have been working on the missing link in the middle. “We know that sound is coming into the ear; and we know what's coming out in the end -- a decision," said Anthony Zador, biology professor and program chair at Cold Springs Harbor Laboratory.
From past research, we know that sounds we hear travel through our ears to the auditory cortex part of our brain.  Here they are translated into electrical impulses known as representations. From there, no one was sure how these representations mix with other input, knowledge and goals already in our brain to become specific reactive movements.
Last year, Zador and Dr. Petr Znamenskiy trained lab rats to listen to a sound and then make a decision to turn and run right if they heard a high pitch sound but to go left for a low pitch sound.  By observing the neuron pattern of the rats, they discovered that the sequence from hearing to muscle movement takes a different path than expected.
"It turns out the information passes through a particular subset of neurons in the auditory cortex whose axons wind up in another part of the brain, called the striatum," said Zador.  They found that only a few of the neurons send information to the striatum, known primarily for planning movement.
“The neurons registering 'high' and 'low' are represented by a specialized subset of neurons in their local area, which we might liken to members of Congress or the Electoral College,” commented Zador. “These in turn transmit the votes of the larger population to the place -- in this case the auditory striatum -- in which decisions are made and actions are taken."
Their research just appeared in the journal Nature.
Here’s Zador describing the overall process of turning hearing into action:

As much as players study film, there are opportunities to introduce the sounds of the game into their training. Both understanding verbal communications and sensing environmental sounds contribute to on-field success.  It starts by closing the eyes and listening to the game.