Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Putting Neuroscience

Putting Neuroscience

In general, with only the rarest of exceptions and then only in the most limited ways, golf teachers, golf psychs, and motor sports experts know nothing about "putting neuroscience." There are a number of reasons for this, including:

1. laziness
2. stupidity
3. ignorance
4. lack of knowledge of putting skills
5. lack of knowledge of neuroscience
6. inability to apply neuroscience to putting skills

And yet, "putting neuroscience" is unquestionably the most important science for understanding and teaching the "Indian, not the Arrow" and for the Indian's performing skillfully with the "know-how".

Accordingly, people who display little or no interest or facility in applying neuroscience to putting skills cannot claim with much persuasive force to be labelled "putting instructors."

So, how difficult is it to be a "putting instructor" in the sense of studying and understanding and teaching how the Indian actually functions in performing putting skills? A little, hence the absence of a crowd at the "putting instructor" stall.

Modern neuroscience has exploded since 1990, so that the NEW knowledge of the human brain compiled in thousands of research efforts around the world in the two decades 1990-2000 and 2000-2010 now represents approximately 300 times more knowledge of how the organ of the brain operates non-consciously than all knowledge in human history prior to 1990. That means that the pre-1990 concepts of how the brain-mind-body is structured and operates are outdated, incomplete, incorrect, misleading and wrong. People who have "taken a powder" on the NEW brain research after 1990 do not have real knowledge about the brain-mind-body, and so are similar to "flat-earthers" standing on the docks of Cadiz looking after the stern of Columbus' ship headed to the New World wagging their tongues about the certain impending doom of the project as it sails off the Edge of the World into the Abyss of Oblivion. As noted, those people currently include: golf teachers, golf psychs, and motor sports experts.

Here is a small example -- taken somewhat randomly from the available brain literature -- of what COULD be the discussion in golf teaching if these folks actually were doing some reading and keeping up, instead of sitting inertly on the dock of the bay for the past 20-25 years or more ignoring the responsibility to learn something that needs learning.

From the book Developing Individuality in the Human Brain: A Tribute to Michael I. Posner, ed. by Ulrich Mayr et al. (Washington DC: American Psychological Assoc., 2005): IOR and Prefrontal Task Processing.


IOR or "Inhibition of Return" is a feature of attention whereby recent attention to an object or detail of space is followed by a blockage or inhibition of returning the attention to this object or detail. The purpose seems to be to foster a more robust scanning of the environment in the "foraging" behaviors of animals, preventing re-attending to past scanned areas in favor or moving on, a clear evolutionary advantage in most situations. The IOR can last up to 3 seconds after attention with an object or location is disengaged. Raymond M. Klein, "On the Role of Endogenous Orienting in the Inhibitory Aftermath of Exogenous Orienting," Developing Individuality in the Human Brain, ch. 3, pp. 45-64.

Applying the insights of this research to putting tasks and skills, one such application would be on the "attention" to the hole in putting. The hole is an object for USE, in the same way that a coffee cup is something to grasp by the ring-shaped handle and pick up and deliver to the lips for drinking the contents. The hole is for delivering the rolling ball into with the putting stroke. Attending to the hole with this intended USE is a subskill in putting that can and should be developed and taught, fleshing out the details of ball delivery speed, capture profile of the space of the hole, effects of surface tilt towards or away from the entry trajectory, etc. But the IOR appears to be contrary to the putting skill, undermining effective performance.

That's correct: the NORMAL pattern of the brain is to skip away from the last thing attended to in favor of subsequent "foraging" for the next opportunity. That's not good golf. So, apparently, there is an innate "habit" of the brain enshrined in the IOR. What to do? More research would be a good plan.

The "exogenous" orienting is how the brain "codes" the object in terms of its seating in the external environment, not in terms of body-only processes such as the aim of the eyeballs or the direction the face aims over the trunk. This sort of out-there coding allows the coding to operate even when the eye or body changes location or even when the object itself moves. Okay, the golf hole doesn't move, so that part doesn't apply to our problem.

The "endogenous" orienting is "top-down" internal control of the IOR. That sounds useful for our application. How to enhance IOR control? Less foraging, more reluctance to disengage attention with the hole as location to use. More knowledge of what is relevant to the task of the putt, less ignorance and complacence about these relevant aspects. Better eye usage to "pay attention" to the relevant cues and aspects of the space of the hole to be used appropriately with the putted ball. 

Interestingly, old people have increasing difficulty disengaging with attended objects and locations, and that's a good thing for putting. It dovetails perfectly with Walter Hagen's seminal advice: "Slow down and smell the roses", and the advice of putting great Bobby Locke: "Slow down and don't let anything make you hurry." Now we have some deep insight into why that advice might have a physical basis in the body and also gain some know-how about operating the body to better effect in putting, according to the way the research tells us the body works for subskills like attention.

A putting instructor in the 21st century needs to know about these issues and get on with the learning and understanding and effective teaching thereof, or else stop claiming to be a putting instructor and be perfectly happy to hold oneself out to the golfing public as "just another dude with an opinion."

Prefrontal Task Processing

The "old school" psychology concept of the prefrontal cortex is that this area exerts abstract controls such as inhibition or mental set switching, with the central concept of "working memory". New research supports a different idea about the prefrontal cortex:  

"Working memory is often taken to be a central aspect of prefrontal function (Goldman-Rakic, 1988). As Posner himself has expressed it, an appealing [new] idea is that prefrontal cortex might "represent information in some temporary store while the brain provides information on what is known about the item" (Posner, 2004).  This is a perspective rather different from that of abstract control functions such as inhibition or switching. Instead, prefrontal control is exerted by holding a salient representation of task-relevant content, allowing other processing systems to deliver additional information about that content and related material (se also, Miller, 2000)."

John Duncan, "Task Models in Prefrontal Cortex," Developing Individuality in the Human Brain, ch. 5, pp. 87-108, at pp. 87-88.

According to Duncan, the new model of the prefrontal cortex works more like this:

"At the heart of the model, working memory builds up a temporary model of some aspect of the world. This can be anything -- a chess problem, an environment to be navigated around, a product to be designed. the model includes both the current state of the world, and the goals to be achieved or actions to be taken. In part, it is built up by new perceptual input, and in part, by the program's long-term knowledge of the world and its structure. As reviewed above, the responses of the prefrontal neurons suggest exactly this sort of temporary, online model of task-relevant facts and actions."

Id. at 92-93. Okay, now we're talking! Let's get applying this to putting skills!

The facts and actions relevant to putting skills are green contour and ball speed control resulting in one curved pathway from ball at address at time 1 to ball dropping nicely into the hole at time 2, caused by the stroke for line and distance at the start. The "read" of any putt is the brain's accurate prediction of how the golfer's ball speed fits with the surface shape and condition of the green in the specific situation between ball and hole, and this requires one unique start line for aim and stroke and the SAME distance control in execution as is used in the future predicting of the "read". That's the "task": all four skills (reading, aiming, stroking, and controlling pace and distance) integrated in one effective action. Enriching this process by teaching task-relevant facts and actions is called "putting instruction".

Here are some task-relevant facts and actions for the "putting instructor" to study, understand, and teach and then for the golfer-player to understand, practice, and perform skillfully:
  • Perception of the green surface conditions that affect the read, such as flatness or contouring shapes, tilt direction, tilt steepness, and green friction or green speed;
  • Perception of ball speed over the course of various length putts and especially the terminal speed at and near the hole for capture;
  • Perception of ball-capture trajectories into the cup representing good and effective delivery speeds or otherwise;
  • Perception of ball speed in misses wherein the ball continues past the hole but is subject to the frictional slowing and stopping of the green so that different patterns of roll-out past the hole are appreciated for whether they are good or bad, safe or dangerous;
  • Perception of the combination of green slope and green speed and appreciation of what that means for the terminal velocity pattern of the ball nearing and arriving at the hole;
  • General knowledge of the "ballpark" reality of break amount for different combinations of green slope and green speed as an anchoring reality for further adjustments away from paradigmatic patterns to the specific "warts and all" situation of "this and only this" putt;
  • Proper "action" knowledge of what different features of the situation mean to the reading prediction and the start line identification to avoid misconceptions engendered by ignorant language common in golf culture, as evident in the widely held but stupid notion to "putt the ball to the "apex" of the break and let gravity then take over and move the ball the rest of the way downhill into the hole";
  • Proper "action" knowledge concerning poor aiming and non-straight stroking habits that infect over 90% of all golfers -- pros included -- without which the reading prediction mis-identifies the start line that will work for the golfer without additional skills development for aiming and stroking;
And much more of the same. In contrast, instruction that uses technology to "number" the slope of a green and to "number" the distance of a putt and to set an arbitrary delivery pace for all golfers and then calculates an aim for all golfers and then provides a booklet of paradigm putts and bids the golfer USE it during a round of golf, but without teaching the perception skills and relevant facts and without teaching the effective actions of good aiming, and straight stroking, and astute ball speed control skills is emphatically NOT "putting instruction" in any mature sense of the expertise, since it does not teach the skills.

The human body works in specific ways that have been evolving in the animal experience of the planet for over 3,000 million years, and the past two decades have seen the science of how the human brain as organ of the body actually interacts with the world in tasks grow to over 300 times all prior knowledge. Golf instructors and people expressing "opinions" as if experts in putting skills cannot "take a powder" on this new knowledge any longer and still claim to be serious about the game. 

It takes a little work, but, hey, if you don't like studying the subject, why don't you stop pretending to be an expert? You can always tell whether someone has put in the time on this new science simply by checking their footnotes. Here are some names the absence of which indicates no real knowledge of this science:  Gazzaniga, Posner, Churchland, Damasio, Ledoux, Jeannerod, Paillard, Berthoz, Llinas, Libet, Hubel, Livingstone, Koch, Chalmers, Melvin, Goodale, Noe, ....


Geoff Mangum
Putting Coach and Theorist
PuttingZone.com -- golf most advanced and comprehensive putting instruction.