Emory Report
September 15, 2008
Volume 61, Number 4



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15, 2008
Psychology of baseball a hit

By Carol Clark

“That the Cubs could be in the World Series, 100 years after they last won it, is a beautiful thing to contemplate,” says Hillary Rodman, associate professor of psychology. For Rodman, baseball and a perpetual underdog team represent both complex neuroscience and something highly personal.

She grew up in Queens, just a couple of miles from Shea Stadium, where she rooted for the New York Mets. “I can remember when my favorite pitcher, Tom Seaver, lost what had been a no-hitter at the very last possible point in the game,” she says. “I was in high school, and I couldn’t focus on my studies the next day. I sat on the steps outside of the building and cried.”

Rodman occasionally leads a popular seminar called “Science and Myth of Baseball.” What goes on in the mind of a pitcher during the final minutes of a close game? How does practicing to hit a baseball flying at 95 miles per hour change a player’s brain? Are mental stimulants and elaborate conditioning routines actually having a greater effect on the sport than steroids? And why do the fans care so much about it all?

Rodman and students tackle these questions and others. The students attend Braves games, observing fan behavior in the stands, and review videotaped plays, to discuss topics such as the psychology and neural basis of decision-making.

The next time she teaches the course, it will be supplemented with a new book, “Your Brain on Cubs: Inside the Heads of Players and Fans,” a collection of essays on neuroscience and sports, recently published by the Dana Center in Washington, D.C. Rodman co-authored the final chapter, titled “It Isn’t Whether You Win or Lose, It’s Whether You Win: Agony and Ecstasy in the Brain.”

When athletes suffer a defeat, they undergo measurable hormonal reactions. “You can see those same hormonal changes in the fans watching,” Rodman says. “There is a lot of interest in neuroscience recently in how people vicariously experience the emotions of others.”

Rodman was an only child of parents who had little money but a lot of passion for baseball. Enduring years of low moments with the Mets finally paid off big for her when the Mets won the World Series in 1986. “I have a flashbulb memory of it,” she says, her eyes lighting up. “I was in graduate school at the time, watching the game in my friend’s living room in Princeton. They hadn’t won the Series since 1969.”