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How neuroscience is helping UC Riverside baseball

The book  and movie "Moneyball" taught us how statistics can be used to uncover hidden potential in baseball players.

The team at UC Riverside is turning to another discipline for an edge: neuroscience.

Thanks to a brain-game developed by UC Riverside psychology professor Aaron Seitz, many of the school's baseball players are able to see farther, and more clearly, and that's apparently translated into more RBIs. 

RELATED: Researchers to share latest findings on neuroscience of creativity

The game is called Ultimeyes. Players see a series of small circles with various patterns appear on a computer screen. The player is asked to click certain patterns, but not others, as seen in the video below.

"At first it's actually pretty difficult," said UC Riverside center fielder Devyn Bolasky.

He and 18 other players train with the game for 25 minutes, 3 to 4 times a week.

"Once you get the hang of it and your eyes get adjusted, it's pretty good," Bolasky said.

Researchers found that on average, players of the game could read eye charts 31% further away than before. Some participants even showed vision that improved well beyond 20/20. The results were published recently in the journal Current Biology.

Training the brain

Ultimeyes creator Aaron Seitz say the game improves vision by strengthening the way the brain processes what the eyes see.

When the brain receives an image, it breaks down that image into a series little circular patterns in order to process it. It's similar to how a digital camera breaks a picture down into pixels.

These patterns are often called gabors, and the objects in Seitz' game are meant to simulate the gabors our brains see.

Seitz says by playing the game, users trains their visual cortex to hone in on these building blocks of image.

"And if we’re able to strengthen the response to these gabors, then in principal this should help with seeing anything in the world," he said.

From the lab to the field

Of course, for baseball players, lab results aren't what matter.

Seitz says improved vision helps on the field as well.

"For instance if you are able to see how the ball is spinning or if you are able to see the stitching on the ball, these are characteristics that go along with great hitters."

UC Riverside Highlander baseball coach Doug Smith says he doesn't pretend to understand the science, but he says it's making a difference.

The team's slugging percentage is up and his players are getting on base more often.

"Any time we can find something to help us get just a little bit better, boy you’re crazy if you’re not going to do it," Smith said.

Crunching the numbers

The nice thing about baseball is that there is plenty of data to look at.

Daniel Ozer is also a psychology professor at UC Riverside and a fan of the method of analyzing baseball statistics known as sabremetrics.

When he heard about the Highlanders' involvement with Ultimeyes, he decided to see if he could spot the difference in the team’s performance by comparing it to other teams in the Big West conference.

"Once I crunched the numbers it was surprisingly large," Ozer noted.

"I was really quite taken aback. I sort of expected to need a microscope and I didn’t need any help at all to see it in the data."

Ozer says Ultimeyes seems to have contributed 41 additional runs for the team, resulting in four extra wins last season.

This could just be a placebo effect created by team members' thinking they should do better thanks to the eye game. Other factors could have improved their game as well.

But Ultimeyes creator Aaron Seitz says he’ll keep running tests on the team to gather more evidence. 

The game recently became available for sale as a computer program and app. Now, other UC Riverside sports and even a few Major League baseball teams have shown interest.