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Scientists Explore Secrets of the Well-Hit Fastball
Date:5/8/2013

WEDNESDAY, May 8 (HealthDay News) -- A baseball pitched at more than 90 miles per hour or a tennis ball swatted at even greater speeds leaves opponents mere split-seconds to ready themselves for a savvy return. So how can the human brain track such small objects traveling at such high speeds?

New research suggests that the brain can predict and map the path of an oncoming object faster than it processes incoming visual information.

"For the first time, we can see this sophisticated prediction mechanism at work in the human brain," study lead author Gerrit Maus, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a university news release.

The researchers said it can take one-tenth of a second for the brain to process what the eye sees. That means, for example, that by the time the brain "catches up" with incoming visual information, a tennis ball moving toward a person at 120 miles per hour would already have moved 15 feet closer. If people couldn't compensate for this, they'd be hit by oncoming objects much more frequently than they are, the researchers said.

To make up for this delay, the brain appears to engage a "prediction mechanism" that pushes oncoming objects a bit forward in their expected trajectory, according to the new study.

"The image that hits the eye and then is processed by the brain is not in sync with the real world, but the brain is clever enough to compensate for that," Maus said. "What we perceive doesn't necessarily have that much to do with the real world, but it is what we need to know to interact with the real world."

Maus's team said the findings provide deeper understanding of how people anticipate the trajectory of moving objects. Besides giving us a better understanding of how top athletes perform so well, the new insight could help doctors diagnose and treat many disorders, including those that impair motion perception.

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