As a psychologist and founder of both the Rankin Center for Neuroscience and The American Brain Association I know something about the relationship between the brain and consciousness. And I can tell you this: consciousness is over-rated. The fact is that we often experience things AFTER the brain has reacted, and we often have the sense that we were in control of the action whereas, in fact, we had no such conscious control.
There’s a distinction to be made between pre-meditated action, one that is intended and planned, and experience, which is conscious recognition of our brain’s innate, instinctive or well-rehearsed automatic routines, which occurs after the fact.
This distinction is relevant to all aspects of life including sport. (Check out our sports division at www.therankincenter.com/sportsdivision.html). Take the golf swing, for example. You swing the club while focusing on the target, trusting your neuromuscular routine that is your swing. But your brain realizes half-way this particular swing that it is not going to be able to maintain balance and hit the ball squarely and thus adjusts the stroke making you hitch. About 300 milliseconds after your brain has done this you realize that you have altered your stroke. But actually your brain has altered your stroke and you have only become aware of it after the event. Of course, your playing partners watching will say, “You adjusted half way through your shot,” but actually you, consciously, did not do any such thing. It wasn’t intentional in the sense of planned pre-meditated action. (Of course, there are times when people do consciously focus on their swing and as a result totally interrupt the automatic neuromuscular routine often leading to a poor shot. If you’re really interested please check out my workbook The Seven Mental Challenges of Golf at www.scienceofyou.com. Video out very soonJ)
You can see where I am going with this. A player, just let’s say its Jermain Defoe, jumps for the ball and hits the defender in the face with his elbow. Unless Defoe takes a very, very deliberate shot with his elbow, there’s no way anyone can accurately impute intent. His elbow might hit the defender, it might concuss him, but only Defoe himself can know whether it was his planned, conscious, pre-meditated intent to hit the defender in the head with his elbow. Let’s take another situation -- deliberate handball. When an object is hurtling towards your head it is the brain’s instinctive reaction to duck and put up your hands to protect yourself. You do not do this consciously. You are aware of doing it but it is not a consciously planned action. It is no more intentional than withdrawing your hand from a hot stove is intentional, although you’re conscious of both experiences.
In sport, professional players have very well rehearsed neuromuscular routines. A batsman for example has learned to identify certain types of delivery and instantly produces a stroke to match the ball’s trajectory. His every stroke isn’t consciously planned! There’s not enough time, especially with fast bowling, to fully assess the delivery, think about it and choose a shot. Which is why when the very fast ball does something different than expected, there’s very little or no time to adjust consciously – instead there’s just an instant reaction, which the batsman is aware of a third of a second after his brain has made it.
Given the distinctions between highly practiced neuromuscular routines, instinctive reactions, pre-conscious brain behavior and pre-meditated planning, I believe it is very, very difficult if not impossible in all but the most blatant of situations for a referee to impute intent with any accuracy or reliability.
So, in short, this whole “intent” thing is a load of nonsense.
And while I’m talking about experience and delays in conscious processing, let me add that it is not possible to look at two places at the same time and judge the relationship between them reliably. For example, if you’re watching a player pass the ball and then switch your attention to the most advanced forward, it takes 300 milliseconds to shift attention. In that time a striker can move a foot or so forward -- and so can a defender. It’s simply not possible to look at two places one after the other and reliably judge them as synchronous events. That the assistant referees get an offside decision right as often as they do is a minor miracle.