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Which One Wins? LeBron’s Brain or His Body?

Yesterday on her Instagram story, cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky posted a short clip of a lecture in which she posed an intriguing question: if she switched brains with LeBron James, which of them would win in a 1-on-1 game? Some relevant facts: LeBron is 6’8”, 250 pounds, a 4-time NBA champion, 19-time All-Star, 4-time league MVP, and is the all-time NBA points leader. He also possesses a singular basketball mind:

“I can usually remember plays in situations a couple of years back — quite a few years back sometimes,” James says. “I’m able to calibrate them throughout a game to the situation I’m in, to know who has it going on our team, what position to put him in.

“I’m lucky to have a photographic memory,” he will add, “and to have learned how to work with it.”

Boroditsky is 5’3”, 105 pounds, and by her own admission knows nothing about basketball and has “no hops”. So who would win? Boroditsky’s body with LeBron’s brain or LeBron’s body with Boroditsky’s brain? And why?

Discussion  17 comments

Dan Blondell

This is assuming the body itself doesn't contain memories of a kind that are pertinent. The brain and the rest of the nervous system don't have a hard biological boundary.

Dan Blondell

It's still a super interesting question assuming "brain" means "all pertinent memories" for this.

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Daniel Knapp

I'm thinking that the brain wins the first few rounds, but then the brain in the new body starts to become more aware of its abilities and overtakes quickly. Being able to tower over someone is a huge advantage in basketball.

Michael S.

There's a kind of parallel in the life story of Mike McDaniel, who is now the head coach for the Miami Dolphins in the NFL. He had the mind, and gradually discovered that he didn't have the body.

Tra H

LeBron James's mind in Boroditsky 5'3" body wins and it's not even close. Physical size is useful in basketball but it's not nearly as important as being good at basketball. It'd probably take LBJ a couple of minutes to figure out what his new body could/couldn't do but how long until Boroditsky learns how to effectively bounce a basketball? Surely it would be longer than it'd take LeBron to score 21 pts. This is of course assuming Boroditsky's mind in LBJ's body doesn't seriously hurt one or both of them as she clumsily tries to figure out how it works.

It's kind of like asking who would win a race on an F1 track, me in a Mercedes Benz F1W14 or Lewis Hamilton in a 94 Honda Civic. Lewis Hamilton, every day.

Jason KottkeMOD

Ha, jinx!

Jenni Leder

I agree with this.

I'm also heavily influenced by this story in Malcolm Gladwell's book, David & Goliath, which I just read about underdogs winning. (There's an excerpt of that story here. ) The story I'm thinking is about how a girl's junior basketball team, with no extraordinary skills or height advantages, made their way to national championships using strategies and their brains.

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Jason KottkeMOD

My guess is that the brain would win quite easily because of determination + skill. After a few games, physical conditioning might become a limiting factor.

It's an interesting question though (re: Dan's assertion above about hard biological boundaries): how much of "muscle memory" and general physical capability is in the brain vs. the body? Could LeBron's brain still shoot the ball effectively in a new body? Could Lera's brain expertly control LeBron's body?

I wonder if there's an analogy here to racing cars. If you stuck Lewis Hamilton in, say, a fast street-legal car (not a supercar or Tesla Plaid or anything) and a regular driver in an F1 car (with a bit of training as to how to use the controls), who would win? F1 cars are stupidly fast, but I'd bet on Hamilton every time.

Joe VanDeventer

That's the hard part - I imagine LeBron pulling up and shooting a jumper with what he thinks is absolute perfect touch, only to watch it clang to the ground seven feet short of the basket. Or defend his old body with his usual relentless defense, only to find himself getting mysteriously winded after only a couple of times up and down the court. I want to vote "brain", but a huge part of his basketball skillset comes from practicing the exact same thing, over and over, for decades - since he was a little kid. I know for the purposes of this question we're supposed to assume, "He has the same shooting touch, just in a different body," but I have a hard time separating the two in my mind.

Matt Smith

The TV show Top Gear in the UK had one of its presenters try to drive an F1 car. The presenter was an OK driver, but not a professional by any stretch, and was essentially too terrified to be able to drive it fast enough for the car to be fully functional (he couldn’t get enough heat in the tyres or breaks).

It was exaggerated for TV, but it makes me think Lewis Hamilton/any F1 driver would win in basically any car against basically anyone who isn’t professional.

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Jason KottkeMOD

Perhaps relevant to our question here: 3 expert fencers against 50 amateurs.


I feel like this question is analogous in some way to that (bleakly) hilarious poll from a few years back about how a not-insignificant number of random men think they could win a point against Serena Williams in a tennis match. Not the misogyny part, the part where these fools discount the holistic nature of extraordinary physical performance. As if a lifetime studying ballet technique from the sofa means you could get up and match Baryshnikov, as if Simone Biles could climb up on a horse today and win a gold medal in dressage. All knowledge is embodied, all prowess is intellectual. To tease the two apart is impossible.

Tra H

It always amazes me how bad people are at judging skill gaps. It's like the yearly question "could the best college football team beat the worst NFL team?". No, hard no. The worst football team has 22 NFL starters on it. The best college team has at best, at absolute best 22 NFL prospects that haven't had a single NFL practice under their belt. They'd be destroyed.

It reminds me of former NBA player Brian Scalabrine explaining, and then proving, that he is way closer to LeBron James than some random jabroni playing at the YMCA is to him.

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Anthony Sorace

The biggest question in my mind is how long after the swap this game happens. For the first little while, simply *jogging* in the new body without falling over is going to be a challenge. During that period, when they’re both super uncoordinated but one has a huge physical advantage, my money’s on King James’ body. Once they’ve both settled in, though, his mind’s got a huge advantage.

Clinton R

My first thought was, if we’re to assume the game happens right after the switch, Lebron’s brain would try to do something that would significantly injury Boroditsky’s body and the game would be over.

Matthew Battles

In terms of the skills gap, I'm reminded of the Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs tennis match (subject of the 2017 film Battle of the Sexes with Emma Stone and Steve Carell). But I'm with Dan up top: the brain and the body aren't separate, and the conceit of brain swappability does all kinds of weird work (in the context of AI, ideas about consciousness and free will, the Singularity...). I wonder how much basketball intelligence even a powerful, highly plastic cognitive system like LeBron's could practicably amass at 5'3" and 105 lbs.

Trent Seigfried

If the game happens immediately after the switch, I think that Lera's mind in LeBron's body wins. It's very likely that LeBron's-mind-in-Lera's-body injures themselves unintentionally trying to use Lera's body in ways that it's not prepared for - jumping and pivoting and such.

If the game happens after a short period, LeBron's-mind-in-Lera's-body wins in an absolute landslide. Once LeBron's mind is familiar with the restrictions of the body, the basketball knowledge would dominate.

Now, if they have a few years after the body switch to prep, things get interesting. How quickly could Lera's-mind-in-LeBron's-body get coached up to a level where the knowledge gap becomes relatively small, allowing the physical differences to become more central? This becomes a question of deliberate practice and so on.

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