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February 20, 2010 9:31 AM   Subscribe

What kind of math am I using when I'm playing Wii golf? More specifically, when I get a hole in one.

Every night my husband and I play Wii golf. I am a -10 player (He's -11 gah!).

I jokingly call it "instinct hand" when I get a hole in one (which happens for me quite often if the winds aren't horrible, but even sometimes when they are).

I think/know my brain (and "instinct hand") is using some sort of math to calculate it. Math has never been my strong point, so explain it to me like I'm 8 years old. What kind of math am I doing in my head when I get a hole-in-one?
posted by Grlnxtdr to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (11 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Well, to say you're using math when you get that hole in one is pretty inaccurate. If you were to design a machine that could do the same thing, then you'd represent the input parameters as numbers and do some basic physics equations to determine how hard and at what angle to swing the club.

The problem is, your brain doesn't work like that. A baseball player trying to catch a fly ball doesn't estimate the velocity and of the ball explicitly and then work out the equations - it's more instinctual and more iterative than that. In the first millisecond the player might create a mental model that suggests that the ball is to his left, then based on the sensory input he receives as he starts to move, that model is refined and updated, and his motor neurons fire accordingly and make fine adjustments. Though we can model this with mathematical equations, there's no explicit math going on.
posted by chrisamiller at 9:41 AM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by torquemaniac at 9:41 AM on February 20, 2010

"Just because a conch shell grows according to the golden ratio doesn't mean the conch understands or calculates phi."
posted by dmd at 9:44 AM on February 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

I agree with above posters that there's no math going on inside your head, but if your question is:
what kind of math would be needed to calculate getting a hole in one, if I didn't already have the natural abilities for it?

Three-dimensional vector calculus. Basically, you would take the initial force from the golf swing, and then, taking into account the force of gravity and the force of the wind, derive an equation that describes the path of the ball. Then you figure out all the points where the height of the ball is equal to 0. These should be at the tee and where it lands. Now, if you do these steps backwards, with the start and endpoints known (tee, hole) and the force as your unknown, then when you get to the end you can use algebra to calculate the strength and direction of force needed for a hole-in-one.

You may remember learning about quadratic equations? This is a slightly more complicated version of those.
posted by vogon_poet at 9:56 AM on February 20, 2010

This is the major question of motor control psychology, a sub-field of cognitive psychology. There's lots of theories about how movements are planned, and lots of experiments trying to test them. But unless something major happened in the five years since I kept up with it, the science is not settled. But vogon_poet is correct that formally presented, it's an optimization problem in 3D vector calculus.
posted by serathen at 10:49 AM on February 20, 2010

Very smart psychologists, economists, and neuroscientists at places like Berkeley and Princeton are asking this very question in different ways. The gist is this: given a sample of data we obtained from our own experience (i.e. swinging the Wii-mote and seeing the outcome) how do our brains go about integrating this data into broad conclusions about what is most likely to happen next time we find ourselves in a similar context?

The terms you want to Google are "statistical learning" and "Bayes theorem." Here is a technical book chapter about statistical learning.
Now, of course, your brain is not "using" the idealized versions of these mathematical models when it goes about deciding the best way to get a hole-in-one based on your past experience with the Wii, in the sense that it's taking a formula and crunching an answer and making your muscles carry out the optimal response. Your brain has no idea about the formulas that describe the optimal forces to apply to the ball, etc. That does not mean your brain doesn't "do math." It does do math, just not like a computer that is starting with rules it was programmed with. Since your brain doesn't know the rules, it infers them from experience. As the first link about statistical learning says:

Generalization = Data + Knowledge

Your brain is really good at collecting and storing data, and making judgments about how that data relates to the present. That's why you're able to generalize so well now about how to get a hole-in-one; your motor and visual memory have vast stores of past info about the game, and parts of your frontal cortex are skilled at making judgments about probability and how a change in wind, for example, alters the probability that a certain move will be the right one.
posted by slow graffiti at 11:04 AM on February 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

A similar question (but about catching, rather than hitting, a ball) is discussed in Chapter 6 of How to dunk a doughnut.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 11:08 AM on February 20, 2010

It's the same kind of math your brain is always doing. If you throw a ball of paper into the trash, your brain is making calculations to use a certain amount of force, use a certain angle, and so on. It has nothing to do with "math" in the mathematics/arithmetic sense of the word. Your brain is constantly making judgments like these.
posted by santaliqueur at 3:07 PM on February 20, 2010

Think about those Japanese humanoid robots like Asimo. Those Japanese teams have been working hard for decades on this problem and have written thousands of lines of computer code and done complex mathematical modeling of the physics involved and the major stunning breakthroughs have been things like "it can stand up without falling over!" and "it can walk three steps!" and "OMG it can go up stairs!" And yet practically any human learns these things instinctively during their first few years of life and never thinks twice about how complex they really are from a control theory standpoint.
posted by Rhomboid at 5:02 PM on February 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would like to partially withdraw my earlier comment.
posted by dmd at 9:02 PM on February 20, 2010

Calculus and differential equations. That is, to figure out which force to apply, given various other forces that will act on the ball in the future, so that the ball rolls into the hole.

Now, your brain isn't using the language of math explicitly to do so, but its way and the rigorous mathematical way are just two ways of talking about the same thing. So I do believe that in a fairly real sense, your brain is doing that math.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 2:04 AM on February 21, 2010 [1 favorite]

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