Einstein’s brain and Messi’s game

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When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think its two hours. That’s relativity.   Albert Einstein

Many people who have experienced a serious car crash or other sudden life-threatening situation will have an idea of this concept of relativity in practice. Most of us have a normal bog-standard, probably even a bit frayed at the edges kind of brain, yet when a large car pulled out in front of me while travelling at 80km/ph the old grey matter suddenly fired-up. Everything slowed down. Time seemed to pause. What couldn’t have been more than a couple of seconds seemed like an eternal moment. I saw the car pull out and instantly slammed on the breaks. I looked at the speedometer and watched it gradually reverse. I looked at the people in the car I was about to smash into and saw the terror and disbelief on their blood-drained faces. I gripped tightly on the steering wheel waiting for impact, feeling my foot leave the break peddle as my head cracked off the inside-roof of my Toyota Rav4, and it was at this moment within a moment that I knew I was going to be ok, that I had slowed down enough before impact to prevent any fatalities. As I bounced off the tail end of the larger 4×4, and into the signpost that they had ignored, I realised how fucking lucky and happy I was to be alive. It all happened in a second.

Many researchers believe that time seems to slow down at times like these because the brain has been fired into overdrive with adrenaline. Everything is sent into a state of hyper-functionality; the senses are heightened and everything is amplified. Imagine your eyes as a camera. A normal camera cannot capture an image of a speeding bullet, but a high-powered high-speed camera can, and that is what your eyes become when car-crash-like events occur. Because your senses are working harder, things that were once moving too quickly to be seen now become visible. It takes a catastrophic event to fire up the brain in this fashion for most people, but for Messi it just comes natural.

Watching Barcelona toy with Manchester City in the Champions league a few weeks ago made me realise that this man really does exhibit a higher level of consciousness. He is not the same as you and me and he doesn’t see the world like we do. It’s because his brain is different. People say that Stephen Hawking’s brain is different too, that he can think in eleven dimensions or something, similar to Albert Einstein. Einstein’s brain was removed when he died, photographed from many angles, then dissected into about 240 blocks (each about 1 cm3) and preserved. Scientists around the world are still studying and learning new things about Einstein’s brain, and what made him think differently to the rest of us. Although it is unclear if Einstein himself actually gave permission to have his brain removed, diced and distributed, it has been priceless to science. Messi’s brain could have similar distinguishing features, invaluable to scientists who are trying to discern the fundamentals of consciousness and perception.

There are other similarities between the two men, for example in relation to Einstein’s brain, the part called Broca’s area which plays an important role in speech production, was smaller than normal,

“To compensate, the inferior parietal lobe was 15 percent wider than normal. The inferior parietal region is responsible for mathematical thought, visuospatial cognition, and imagery of movement.

What both men lacked in verbal dexterity they overcompensated for in other areas, such as spatial awareness, time and motion. Einstein himself claimed he didn’t think verbally, but formulated his thoughts by combining symbols and images that he could construct and de-construct and re-construct “voluntarily”, and which he then would try to convey with words, translating his ideas into a language other people might understand. Messi doesn’t have to translate his perception of the world into words because he expresses it on the football pitch. We can actually use the great scientists’ most famous theory, his Special Theory of Relativity, to explain just how Messi is able to do this, and leave highly paid professionals like James Milner on his ass, looking like he had no idea who he was, or how he got there, in the process.

Now it has to be said that I don’t know shit about Einstein’s theory of relativity except that, like football, it’s all about time and space. The theory tries to explain how events look different to people in different places, or when moving at different speeds. To use the example of the quote at the top, if someone timed you with a stopwatch as you played Candy Crush for one minute, and again as you sat on a hot stove for one minute, to the Timer, the minute is the same, but to you, the minute sitting on the hot stove must seem like an eternity. The one minute is constant; it is only your perception of the time that is different.

I think that Messi’s perception of reality is also different from most people because it seems that he plays the game with a heightened sense of time and space. Players and passes, moves and manoeuvres are perceived differently by Lionel Messi. I heard a good analogy on the radio recently that illustrates this theory nicely. Imagine a frog slurping a fly out of the air with its tongue, in what seems to us like a lightening flash. To us it seems that the frog is operating with super-speed, but to the frog, because of the way in which its senses have evolved, the action is akin to us licking an ice-cream. Messi is like a big fat frog on a rectangular green pond, and the other players are merely the flies and midges that sustain his existence. Like a god, he uses them for his sport.

Obviously nobody is suggesting that Messi is divine. Nobody is perfect. He miss- places passes, and over hits the ball on occasion; however he is unique and supreme in terms of his footballing brain. I imagine he perceives the actions of teammates and opponents fractionally slower than the rest of us do, and that is why his timing is so perfect. Maybe other great sportsmen such as Michael Schumacher, or Michael Jordan had similar traits, but this is football and Messi is king.

I haven’t been this excited about space, time and movement since I was completely blown away by The Matrix on the big screen back in 1999. In that film Neo (Keanu Reeves) could manipulate the laws of physics; slow down time so he could fight a hundred enemies and control bullets with his mind. Messi reminds me of this by the way he controls the ball, by the way he puts the ball into spaces, and through spaces that other players and spectators can’t see until he illuminates them. Around players, between players and through players, he thinks, moves and plays at a tempo that is unique to him. What makes him so outstanding at football might be physical but it’s not his physique; it is not innate talent, though he is supremely talented; and it’s not through training and practice, like it is for most professional footballers. He’s just different; a new breed of footballer, perhaps a new breed of human being. He’s Neo Messi.

by Paul Cahill

Paul Cahill