Whoever said that we learn from our mistakes made a mistake. Albert Einstein said it, Winston Churchill said it, and they got it wrong. It turns out that we are better at learning after doing something right rather than after doing something wrong. Researchers from MIT have shown for the first time that the brain learns more after a success than a failure.
While this revelation in neuroscience is over a year old, I’m just now getting around to its implications for the NBA. True, the most readily apparent correlation to the beautiful game is that oft-deigned ritual known as practice. As the authors of the paper make clear, practice for practice’s sake is simply less effective than successful, “perfect” practice. And surely, as the waves of technology and forward thinking sweep through the league, practice stands to become more efficient, and players stand to be better served by the process.
Beyond the scope of the habits we generate, though, I wonder how these findings might play into everyone’s favorite “No…no…yes!” moments: the heat check and the isolation game-winner.
For the individual, basketball offers a plethora of stimulus-response models. Perhaps the most pure of these is the relationship between a shooter and his result. Success and failure is a nearly binary system, reinforced by the din of a swelling crowd after a ferrophobic swish or the unseemly cacophony of silence brought forth by an errant airball. There is no nebulous ambiguity; the ball simply goes in, or it doesn’t.
Our hindsight bias chalks up the heat check to, well, what its name entails: a player is simply diagnosing whether or not physics is up to the task of withstanding the oncoming barrage. But what if the heat check is less of a conscious decision by the player and more a biomechanical reaction by his body and mind working in conjunction to further his understanding of the game? A brain primed by previous success in several consecutive made jumpers might be one more likely to attempt to recreate that feedback loop as quickly as possible. There are no machinations of the mind or algorithms to consider. Get the ball. Shoot the ball again. Make the shot again. If you miss, well, that’s the cost of doing business, and given the nature of this study, seemingly one that is quick to slip the mind. And it is likely no coincidence that many of the same neurological pathways are shared between addiction, learning and memory. Those shots that go in are those that most easily and most vividly reach the deepest parts of the brain, potentially creating a scenario where the player in question, so good at what he does, creates a self-reinforcing cycle of neurological reward for a job well done that influences the next decision and creates a sense of addiction to that trial-and-conquer sequence of events. The heat check is intoxicating, to an extent that we may not even realize.
Additionally, this study certainly, to me at least, illuminates the way in which we as fans entertain the notion of the game-winning shot, the second-cousin of the heat check. Most assuredly, we remember the makes more than the misses, just as with the heat check; I’ll not rehash the usual, banal discussion of who’s clutch and who’s not, but suffice to say those discussions likely owe a debt of gratitude to the mind’s reaction to success. For those of us not even naturally involved in the task at hand who live vicariously in every micro-radian movement of our favored orange sphere, success and failure can be just as visceral. The makes, we remember; the misses we forget. So has evolution decreed.
None of this is to say that basketball is a game of probabilities played by deterministic creatures; after all, this study is predicated on a much smaller window of time between events than might take place between a made shot and the subsequent heat check. But as we move forward in our statistics and our approach to the game, it’s worth pushing that envelope even further to the horizon. Every team wants to know what makes its players tick; understanding just what makes the ticks tock is a logical starting point.
Image by Leo Bar PIX IN MOTION via Flickr