LeBron James’s basketball skills aren’t only physical. (Tony Dejak/Associated Press)
Columnist

Sally Jenkins

Much as his brute-strength shoulders and legs define LeBron James, it’s the stuff in his head that elevates him. If James has shown nothing else as the Cleveland Cavaliers struggle through the Eastern Conference finals, it’s the quality of his mind. What would a cellular analysis of his brain show? Maybe a flock of starlings.

There isn’t much reason to stay interested in an 0-2 series in which the Cavaliers have been borderline uncompetitive against the Boston Celtics in the fourth quarter, but it’s worth watching to the end if only to see whether James will pull off one of his memory tricks. His amazing recall has led to more than one comeback and is at least as much of a force as the form that produced 42 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds in Game 2. Try a viewing experiment the next time James takes the court: Analyze his head and not his body. Watch him scan the game and store it upstairs.

Much has been made of James’s show-offy display of memory in his postgame analysis of Game 1. Replay it and notice not just the accuracy but the detail: In narrating six sequences in proper order, he noted the time on the shot clock, who took each shot and missed what, where the ball was inbounded from, and Jayson Tatum’s use of a Euro-step and right hand on a layup. When he was done, listeners broke into applause.

I ran James’s feat past some noted neuroscientists to see whether it impressed them as much as it did the rest of us. “Fascinating,” said Jocelyn Faubert, research chair in visual perception at the University of Montreal. “Quite beautiful really,” said Andre Fenton, professor of neuroscience at New York University. “It’s remarkable,” said Zach Hambrick, a cognition-performance expert at Michigan State. “But not surprising.”

It’s not surprising because researchers are seeing an ever more articulate connection between cognitive science and human performance.

“This is one of the bedrock findings in research on human expertise: that experts have superior memory for information within their domain,” Hambrick said.

Human performance studies have shown that what seems to be “photographic memory” is really extrapolation based on habit-worn paths of knowledge, the vestiges and traces left in the brain by experience.

In a famous study of chess players by Adriaan de Groot in the 1960s, pieces were shown on a board for five seconds and then removed. The players were asked to recall what they had seen. Novices remembered only weakly. The more expert the players, the more pieces they could recall, and which piece was where.

“Grandmasters could recall everything,” Florida State performance researcher K. Anders Ericsson said.

But that’s not all. Masters of games don’t just build static memories but show a remarkable ability to intuit. James’s anticipation is inseparable from his memory.

In a study of elite soccer players cited by Ericsson, competitors were shown a game and the screen was halted at an unpredictable point. Asked to recall the positions on the field, the best players not only remembered who was where but also predicted where they would go next.

“They were able to assess where players are going as opposed to where they are right now,” Ericsson said. “A momentary picture wouldn’t do that job.”

Hambrick cites a study of expert baseball and cricket players that showed what happened when their view of the pitcher was partly obstructed: They became as confused as amateurs. This is because they are so used to having “advanced perceptual cues” to predict where the ball will cross the plate.

Think about the processes involved as James scans the court while moving down the floor. The optic nerves absorb and transmit small peripheral details, then shift to a sudden zoom focus as he throws a glancing no-look bounce pass that hits Kevin Love in the hands mid-stride. Then his attention broadens again stereoscopically to capture the whole floor. The cognitive flexibility to go in and out of those states fluidly is highly learned. And yet little short of magic.

“To manage all those systems, that is a form of intelligence,” Faubert said, “and we shouldn’t be afraid to say that.”

Most magical of all is what’s required to build those spatial maps in James’s head. In 2014, researchers John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser won the Nobel Prize for explaining how the brain navigates. They answered a simple but profound set of questions: How do we perceive position, know where we are, find the way home? They discovered the brain’s “inner GPS” that makes it possible to orient and plan movement. O’Keefe found that a specific cell in the hippocampus throws off a signal to mark a specific place. The Mosers added to this by showing that neurons in the entorhinal cortex fire in fields with regularity. When they drew lines corresponding to the neuronal activity, here is what they saw: a grid. LeBron James has a geometric projection in his brain that acts as a computational coordinate system. And so do you.

But wait. How does the hippocampus store distinct memories of similar events? How can James’s brain discriminate between multiple similar memories? Why don’t all crossover moves look as indistinguishable to him as spots in a parking garage? Fenton published a possible answer to this question in a paper this week in the journal Neuron. The “place” signaling by neurons is not so much a constant remapping, he suggested. It’s actually highly synchronized. Think of the neurons in James’s head as birds. Starlings. “Like a flock of starlings that takes on different formations while still maintaining cohesion as a flock,” Fenton said.

“He’s not recording like a videotape,” Fenton said. “He’s not rebuilding. He doesn’t rebuild a picture of what is going on. He watches it evolve continuously and fluidly. There is a flock, and it’s moving down the court, and everybody has a place. All these birds form a structure, and the structure is important. We call it a flock. He calls it a play.”

We all have this remarkable combination of projection and flow in our heads, to varying degrees. You have it when you drive to work or do a job on deadline.

“It’s actually what you and I and all beings do,” Fenton said. “He’s not an enlightened being.”

Your brain has learned a series of models over your life and is constantly drawing computations. James’s just works better than yours on a basketball court because he has spent more time mapping that space.

“These people are masters of assessing the likelihoods of things,” Fenton said. “If I have an amazingly good set of models and expectations — of my opponents, of my teammates and how the ball will move — it can look like I am totally omniscient.”