I've had a hard time putting my finger on exactly what makes me love lacrosse so much. I've wanted to write this down for a long time but I've had trouble organizing all of my thoughts on this topic into words until last weekend.
|Someone else's squad|
While I played at a highly competitive level in college and I think that I know something about how brains work, Unfortunately I am a mere sub-sub-sub-zenmaster at lacrosse and I definitely don't completely know how brains work. I think there is a real connection between these things and I'll try my best to stitch them together with the tools that I've got.
Lacrosse is the Creator's game
The first legendary game of lacrosse was between the four-legged animals and the winged birds. The Bear, The Deer, and The Turtle were the captains of the four-legged animals. The Bear was strong and could overpower any opponent physically, The Deer was quick and could cover long distances, and The Turtle was strong and could withstand blows from any opponent and still advance the ball forward. The Owl, The Eagle, and The Hawk, were the captains of the winged birds. The Owl could keep track of the ball, while The Eagle and Hawk were swift and agile. The four-legged animals shunned The Mouse and The Squirrel because they were small but the birds recognized their value and added them to their roster. And beautiful, epic, long story short - while the four-legged animals were physically stronger, the birds won the first game of lacrosse by appreciating each other's skills and working together.
Lacrosse was not made for war and victory, but to recognize the value of each individual and work together. The Creator made lacrosse so that he could watch all of his children enjoy the game and also as a 'medicine game' they could use to heal. I can vouch that it is certainly fun to play and its easy to imagine a Creator proudly watching his children playing with literally the best toy ever made. I can also attest to the healing aspect to this game but it is hard to explain without experiencing it. Obviously the physical exercise involved in lacrosse is good for you but there is a substantial mental health component to this game. The four-legged animals represent the physical nature of the game but the winged animals, the more successful team, use a subtle, harmonizing collection of mental skills to succeed. Playing this game well requires one to think critically about his own abilities, develop the understanding that other players' skills are often different than his, and that we can create beautiful things by combining our unique abilities together. From the outside, lacrosse looks like an aggressive, violent sport - and to some players that is unfortunately all that it is. But for me at least, and I think many others, I play to have new experiences, to develop and understand my human abilities, and learn the way other players think about the game and the abilities I don't have. Psychology calls this idea of attributing mental states to others 'theory of mind.' Practicing this skill feels both therapeutic and helps me as a scientist push my understanding of how our brains work.
Neuroscience and Lacrosse - Experience Matters
Not so surprisingly, the foundational work describing how our brains can connect the location where a sound originates from to an eye movement towards that location, was all found by studying juvenile owl brains. (Thanks Owl).
Thanks Owlsee here for more if you have access: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12015612
It's kind of a catch-22 where I have rich experiences combining many mental processes playing lacrosse that I can deeply intuit but don't understand mechanistically. And the only way we know how to understand how our brains do such amazing things in natural and social environments must simplify these complex, interacting systems and study them in artificial laboratory environments. Experiencing and training the complexity of our minds is central to the function of our brains in real life scenarios but I don't think this is appropriately appreciated in academic neuroscience.
I don't think that a blind person will ever be able to fully comprehend vision even if a scientifically complete explanation of it is available to them. Can this possibly be false? Taking this a step further, I'd argue that someone who spends time engaging and pushing their mental faculties at a high level in a dynamic, natural environment might have a better intuition for studying the system scientifically than someone who only studies it in a lab.
This is a strong assertion and I don't have evidence to support it besides my obviously biased experience. Detailed research into neural circuits is necessary to understand the brain but there is something about playing lacrosse or otherwise, fully engaging with other people using their mental skills at their limits - that facilitates gaining deep insights into cognition. Each time I play, I learn a little more about each of these processes and whether they worked in the specific situation that I used them.
My mind is on fire when I play lacrosse. I'm using my entire brain at once and learning about it as I engage with the game - It feels amazing. When I play defense, the neurons in my brain churn through ATP, carefully modulating circuits that keep my mental representation of everything on the field updated. I use my long-term memory knowledge of the game and modify it with novel aspects of the current context. I have to regulate my emotions towards blatantly incorrect, unjust, and stupid calls from the ref and actions of other players. I'm constantly trying to read my opponent's mind and predict what will happen next in the game, while he knows I'm doing this and is trying to trick me. Then I integrate all of this information and more into multitudes of small decisions and actions that impact the game in this giant, complex, recursive, loop that I'm a part of. It's not like I'm not some sort of brainiac, I'm just one of twenty people on the field who also all have brains doing the exact same thing but each metallization flavored like a different kind of ice cream. A good lacrosse game is like a Baskin Robbins.
Lax vs. The Creator's GameLike every mention of lacrosse, its important to note its place in contemporary culture as a caricature of elite, east coast, overprivileged, private school, white, male culture - which is a stark contrast to its origins. I'm conflicted because I'm not sure if I would have been exposed to neuroscience otherwise. A significant admissions bump from the lacrosse coach separated me from swaths of applicants and got me into an elite college with a great neuroscience program that I was only starting to get interested in. Moreover, lacrosse has pushed me to think in new ways and has given me a rich bank of experiences I use to think about how our brains work every day at work.
I hope I get to see this kid out at an open tournament some day. I bet even the zenmasters might even have something to learn from him.
Lacrosse is Both Intellectual and Spiritual
I'm happy that I found lacrosse and that it led me to think about the ideas that got me interested in neuroscience. Lacrosse played an invaluable role in finding my self and I relish seeing other players using lacrosse to discover their own gifts and apply them to their lives in their own unique way. I don't understand this game the same way that the Iroquois, the zenmasters, and lots of people at my level do. This is the flavor that I see it in, and I think that's what it's all about.