Zach Schonbrun is a senior editor covering business and technology at The Week. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, Fast Company, ESPN the Magazine, SB Nation Longform, Vice, The Athletic, and Yahoo! Sports, among other publications. Zach is the author of The Performance Cortex, which explores the neuroscience of motor skills, and was published by Dutton/Penguin Books in April 2018. Before joining The Week, Zach covered five Final Fours, the Super Bowl, the World Series, the NBA postseason, US Open tennis and championship golf — among numerous other events — for the Times, as well as other business and sports features. Six of his articles have appeared on the front page of The New York Times. Zach received a B.A. in Economics from Syracuse in 2009 and an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia in 2011.
In today’s podcast, we talk with Zach about his book, how the brain — not the body — may be responsible for athletic prowess, and the implications for future Soldiers. The following bullet points highlight key insights from our interview:
Soldiers share many characteristics with performance athletes, and researchers have identified ways to chart and measure brain activations when performing athletic tasks. Thesebrain activations provide insights into who can accomplish these tasks quicker and more accurately, helping to identify standout athletes, and possibly standout Soldiers, before they ever “take the field.”
Movement is a very complicated system and it’s all controlled by the brain. Artificial Intelligence researchers have created computers that can beat humans in chess and Jeopardy, but roboticists still struggle with replicating motions and movements. Those who are adept at skilled movement, like star athletes, should be considered geniuses. They are using their brains in ways that challenge their decision-making, processing, understanding, and memory.
Emerging and current technology utilizing electroencephalogram (EEG) headsets for measuring brain activations is only the starting point. More sophisticated monitoring equipment and realistic simulation software will allow more in-depth tests to be conducted and more accurate readings to be collected.
Neuroplasticity— the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life — is much more active at a younger age, as the brain is much more pliable. Practice and training in these younger years is vital to adequately learning required tasks and completing them successfully. New recruits should get much of their complex training early in their careers.
Accurately re-creating real world conditions — all real world conditions — in a training environment is absolutely essential to learning the desired task. Batting practic