Why top sport stars might have 'more time' on the ball
The oft-repeated statement that the very best sportsmen and women seem to have more time may have a kernel of truth, according to neuroscientists.
Researchers at University College London have found that an individual's perception of time does seem to slow as they prepare to make a physical action.
They suggest that getting ready to pick a pass or smash a ball affects the way the brain can processes information.
In elite performers, this capacity may be increased, they speculate.
"John McEnroe has reported that he feels time slows down as he is about to hit the ball, and F1 drivers report something very similar when overtaking," said Dr Nobuhiro Hagura from UCL's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.
"Our guess is that during the motor preparation, visual information processing in the brain is enhanced. So, maybe, the amount of information coming in is increased. That makes time be perceived longer and slower."
Dr Hagura was first prompted to look into the perception of time dilation after hearing of the experiences of big-hitting baseball stars in his native Japan, but the idea that top class performers somehow enjoy slightly longer to make critical decisions is popular right across the world of sport.
To test the anecdotal evidence, the UCL team carried out very simple experiments that involved volunteers having to react to flashing and flickering discs on a screen.
What the researchers found was that for the participants asked to tap the screen, the time they felt they had to make the action was longer than for those individuals making no arm movements.
What is more, the more prepared the subjects were to make the action, the longer the time they perceived they had.
The physiological mechanism driving this sense of slowing time is not known, but it is probably related to how well the brain can maximise the flow of information coming from the eyes.
"We now want to do these behaviour experiments again while measuring the participants' brain activity with electroencephalography. We can then look at what is happening in the visual cortex during the action preparation period," Dr Hagura told BBC News.
The UCL team would like also to run some experiments that involve top sportsmen and women.
It could be that the connection identified in the study is much stronger in these individuals than in the average athlete, and that this superiority could play a role in their achieving higher performance levels.
For example, it could be that this time dilation effect allows the elite player to make those last-moment adjustments to a shot or pass that proves the difference between winning or losing.
The London research is published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.