Neurobiology of decision-making in sports
26 Oct 2020   ·   

In 2008, neuroscientist John-Dylan Haynes conducted a set of experiments at the Bernstein Centre for Computational Neuroscience (Berlin) with the goal to learn more about the mechanisms of free will in human beings. The team of scientists used a brain scan to investigate what happens in the human brain just before making a decision.

In the study, participants were asked to lie down inside a magnetic resonance tomograph (MRT) with a push-button in each hand. The instructions were simple: they had to press the button they wanted at the time they wanted. They were only asked to remember the exact moment they had decided to push it. After analysing the data, the results were surprising: it could be predicted up to ten seconds in advance what decision the participants were going to make. The brain “knew” what it was going to do up to ten seconds before they were aware of their own decision. Previous research had shown that someone’s intentions could be predicted from their brain activity, but it had never been demonstrated that a decision made in the future could be predicted.

This work leads us to ask ourselves: is it really necessary to be aware of a decision in order to make it? According to Haynes’ team results, it is not. Our future actions are determined without the need for us to know it. Somehow, actions are planned at a subconscious level and for us noticing it, may end up serving more to keep a record or reflect on them than to make them happen. Even so, the limitations of Haynes’ experiment were obvious: you could only choose between two alternatives with all the time in the world ahead of you, and that greatly reduced the range of options available. However, the neural bases of these circuits do not have to change in front of more open scenarios. Like on a football pitch.

We make decisions from the moment we wake up in the morning until we go to bed at night, and for each one of them, a set of systems are activated that work for the evaluation of the different options, the testing or choice of options and, finally, result in the decision or chosen action itself. In some cases, when we have enough time, the rational part of our thinking will be involved, elaborating a set of long-term projections about the outcome of our decisions. However, when a more immediate response is required, it is the emotions that take on greater relevance. But all of them are always under the influence of many variables, such as the context or the rules that configure the context where we move. If I have the ball on my feet and two defenders block my path, my brain will not consider the possibility of picking up the ball with my hands and running out of the stadium.

Does this mean that we will find better alternatives the longer we think about them? Not necessarily. Reason is not always wiser than emotion. As Jonah Lehrer explains in his book How We Decide, scientist Ap Dijksterhuis carried out an experiment in which participants evaluated a group of cars. The objective was for them to decide which one was the best and, for this purpose, information with the objective qualities of each model was provided to them. After showing this data, half of the group was allowed four minutes to calmly think about which was the best car, while the other half was entertained with another activity and then asked to answer, with little time to think about it, what their best option was. Of those who had time to reflect, only 25 % got the best model right. What about those who had to let themselves be carried away by intuition? 60 % of them got it right.

That is undoubtedly important for athletes who are exposed to the need to make decisions in a matter of milliseconds. A dribble, a pass or a shot on goal can end up being the difference between winning or losing a match. And it seems that this less conscious part of our brain manages quite well when it comes to deciding. Let’s go back to the initial reflection of the article: being aware of having made a decision comes after the decision is made. But, logically, our brain must be trained to, consciously or unconsciously, always choose the best option among those available.

Hence the relevance of training or strategy. During a match, all the relevant information does not have to be consciously searched for, but it has to be there so that our brain can access it. A person who has never trained for football will not have the necessary information to know the technique of this sport or the way their team plays. Instead, as you train and gain experience, your brain will create new connections that will allow you to access the necessary data in a matter of milliseconds. What do I do when the defender comes from my left? A feint to the right. What if my colleagues are distributed to the other side without markers? I must then change the game towards them. Any athlete will affirm that, just like driving a car, everything comes out automatically when they barely have time to think. Despite having to choose between infinite ways of acting or moving.

Similarly, professional poker player Michael Binger explains that he was only able to become a champion of the game when he stopped obsessing over counting cards or calculating odds and began to get carried away, in part, by his less rational emotions and intuitions. Managing large amounts of data, such as possible combinations of opponents’ cards or those yet to come out, can lead to being blocked by excess of information. And that, in turn, can lead a player to not choose, or to choose the less optimal option.

Having the experience of thousands of card games, like Binger, or of matches, like a football player, can be a differentiating factor when it comes to letting oneself get carried away by a hunch. Because you will not be relying on pure chance but on letting the neuronal circuit act faster in making a decision. An intuition born of a well-trained brain does not mean jumping into the void, but knowing, without knowing it yet, that we are facing the right decision.

Jose Valenzuela


Dijksterhuis, A. (2006). “On Making the Right Choice: The Deliberation-Without-Attention Effect”. Science. 311(5763): 1005–1007.

Lehrer, Jonah (2011), Cómo decidimos, Barcelona: Paidós.

Soon, Chun & Brass, Marcel & Heinze, Hans-Jochen & Haynes, John-Dylan. (2008). Unconscious determinants of free decisions in the human brain. Nature neuroscience. 11. 543-5. 10.1038/nn.2112.


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