Check Out The Brain On LeBron James

Illustration for article titled Check Out The Brain On LeBron James

Cleveland's prodigal son, LeBron James, has a better memory than you. But then, the same could probably be said of many professional athletes.


Photo Credit: Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Anyone left doubting the importance of intellect in professional sports would do well to read Brian Windhorst's recent article on LeBron James and his exceptional brain. The basketball phenom's ability to not only recall plays from years gone by, but "calibrate" those memories to game scenarios as they unfold in real time, has led Windhorst and others to speculate that LeBron may possess some version of an "eidetic" (not, as James himself has called it, photographic) memory – one which he applies to record-shattering, MVP-garnering effect:

...if you give up the baseline to James on a drive in November 2011 and he's playing against you in March 2013, the Heat small forward will remember it. It means that if you tried to change your pick-and-roll coverage in the middle of the fourth quarter of the 2008 playoffs, he'll be ready for you to try it again in 2014, even if you're coaching a different team. It also means that if you had a good game the last time you played against Milwaukee because James got you a few good looks in the first quarter, the next time you play the Bucks you can count on James looking for you early in the game. Because, you know, the memory never forgets.

While exceptionally strong memories are rare, there's reason to believe they're more common among professional athletes than the general population. Florida State University psychologist K. Anders Ericsson expands on this hypothesis in a followup to Windhorst's piece, written by Noah Davis for Pacific Standard:

The better memory representation is assumed to be critical to the ability of the player to make anticipations and get immediate feedback on the accuracy to keep refining the anticipations... To be able to learn, one needs to be able to have a good memory for what actually happened in the game, so one can think about situations after the game is over and design practice to help improve weaknesses.

Still, James may be an outlier among outliers. Eidetic memory may occur in a small percentage of children, but it's thought to begin fading around age six. Consequently, it is almost never observed in adults. What's more, psychologists doubt that eidetic memory is something that can be learned. These observations raise intriguing questions about the impressive memories of elite athletes, eidetic or otherwise. To what extent are athletes' skills at recall applicable to scenarios outside of athletic pursuits (to hear his friends tell it, LeBron's extraordinary memory makes it difficult to best him at video games, as well)? Is their superior memory an innate ability, a skill honed over time, or – it seems most likely – some combination thereof?

The answers are unclear, at least for now; science is well on its way to exploring what separates the mind of an exceptional athlete from that of the average Joe. As Carl Zimmer noted back in 2010, neuroscientists have begun to catalog some fascinating differences between the two.