How Your Brain Can Predict the Future

Wikipedia/Creative CommonsSource: Wikipedia/Creative Commons

As the well-known adage states: “Timing is everything.” Watching Roger Federer serve and volley at lightning-fast speeds and consistently hit the ball in the sweet spot of his tennis racket is awe-inspiring. To spectators, it seems as if Federer has a sixth sense that makes it possible for him to prepare his hand-eye coordination in advance with the clairvoyance of a mind-reader, who can predict exactly where the ball is going to be, milliseconds before it's actually within swinging distance.

Athletes commonly refer to the importance of anticipatory timing and predicting the future trajectory of a ball or hockey puck in motion. As Wayne Gretzky famously said, "A good hockey player plays where the puck is; a great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be." Along this same line, Yogi Berra once said, “You don’t have to swing hard to hit a home run. If you got the timing, it’ll go.” Legendary Major League Baseball left-handed pitcher, Warren Spahn, echoed this sentiment when he said, “Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.”

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But how does the brain "predict the future" and anticipate the precise timing of finely-coordinated muscle movements in advance? New research from the University of California at Berkeley has identified, for the first time, that the brain uses two separate brain regions to predict the future for anticipatory movements.

More specifically, the researchers found that we use the cerebellum and the basal ganglia in concert to calculate the timing of finely-coordinated muscle movements in sports, music, and everyday life. "Together, these brain systems allow us to not just exist in the moment, but to also actively anticipate the future," senior author Richard Ivry, a UC Berkeley neuroscientist and director of the Cognition and Action Laboratory (CognAc) , said in a statement. The Ivry lab focuses on how people from all walks of life learn new skills, select motor functions, and produce coordinated movements.

This paper, “ Double Dissociation of Single-Interval and Rhythmic Temporal Prediction in Cerebellar Degeneration and Parkinson’s Disease ,” by Assaf Breska and Richard B. Ivry was published online November 13 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences .

As you can see by watching the video above, the ability of a player to hit a fastball in the sweet spot of a baseball bat is a mind-boggling phenomenon.

According to the latest findings on anticipatory timing by Breska and Ivry, the cerebellum and basal ganglia split their timekeeping responsibilities depending on the specific task at hand. When the calculation of exactly when to coordinate a movement relies on past experiences, the cerebellum seems to be the key player. On the flip side, when rhythm is a factor, the basal ganglia seems to take center stage.

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 CLIPAREA l Custom media/ShutterstockArtistic representation of human cerebellum (Latin for "little brain") Source: CLIPAREA l Custom media/Shutterstock

The bottom line: Rhythmic timing appears to be primarily a function of the basal ganglia and timing based on memories of prior experience is more cerebellum-based. Notably, in cases where someone has damage to his or her cerebellum or basal ganglia in a way that causes one of these two neural clocks to misfire, the other region seems to have the ability to pick up the slack and compensate.

"Whether it's sports, music, speech or even allocating attention, our study suggests that timing is not a unified process, but that there are two distinct ways in which we make temporal predictions and these depend on different parts of the brain," lead author Assaf Breska, a postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at UC Berkeley, said in a statement.

To test how the cerebellum and basal ganglia share anticipatory timing duties, Breska and Ivry compared how well Parkinson's patients with basal ganglia deficits and cerebellar degeneration patients responded to a series of “temporal” cues that were either rhythmic or represented more complex, arrhythmic patterns.

"We show that patients with cerebellar degeneration are impaired in using non-rhythmic temporal cues while patients with basal ganglia degeneration associated with Parkinson's disease are impaired in using rhythmic cues," Ivry said. These results suggest that the human brain uses two different regions and mechanisms for anticipatory timing.

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According to the researchers, these new findings debunk long-held theories that a single brain system was responsible for all our timing needs in sport, music, and life.

 CLIPAREA l Custom media/ShutterstockArtistic representation of the basal ganglia. Source: CLIPAREA l Custom media/Shutterstock

"Our results suggest at least two different ways in which the brain has evolved to anticipate the future," Breska said. "A rhythm-based system is sensitive to periodic events in the world such as is inherent in speech and music. And an interval system provides a more general anticipatory ability, sensitive to temporal regularities even in the absence of a rhythmic signal. Our study identifies not only the anticipatory contexts in which these neurological patients are impaired, but also the contexts in which they have no difficulty, suggesting we could modify their environments to make it easier for them to interact with the world in face of their symptoms.”

In the near future, the researchers are optimistic that non-pharmaceutical interventions such as smartphone apps, deep brain stimulation, and brain-training video games could be utilized to treat patients with various neurological timing deficits. This knowledge could also be implemented by coaches to help athletes perfect there anticipatory timing on the playing field or tennis court.