Even referees' brains have their limits

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By Ben Klayman

DETROIT (Reuters) - It was the World Cup goal seen around the world but missed by the eyes that mattered most: England midfielder Frank Lampard's shot that dropped cleanly past the German goal line but was not given by the referee.

The avalanche of complaints about that missed call and others during the largest soccer tournament in the world raised the philosophical question of whether instant-replay technology improves games or turns them into soulless events run by a bank of blinking lights.

Scientists who study the human brain say it is surprising that bad calls do not happen more often.

"Despite all of the apparent surprise that the referees would be blowing calls, especially at crucial points, from a psychological standpoint this is what we would expect," said David Meyer, director of the University of Michigan's Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory.

"It's like every once in a while you draw the ace of spades," the psychology professor added. "It's going to happen."

Questions about the capacity of the human brain to judge action on the sports field are not limited to conversations at the local bar, but are examined by neurobiologists and psychologists using such measures as "relay latency," "perceptual fluency" and "speed-accuracy trade-off curve."

While it is easy for fans to throw up their hands in disgust at a missed call and curse the referee, they need to realize that officials are weighing up actions which happen in fractions of a second, experts say.

"Human beings are never going to be perfect at making calls," said Gary Marcus, a professor of psychology at New York University. "Our memories just aren't cut out to allow us to be perfect referees.

"Our eyes work a lot like cameras but our memories don't work anything like an SD (secure digital) card," Marcus, author of the book "Kluge: the Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind," said, referring to memory cards used in digital cameras. "We can't literally play back what we just saw."


Salinas and fellow authors found that as little as 30 milliseconds of extra viewing time was the difference between a correct and an incorrect judgment about whether a flashed light had turned red or green.

"Thirty milliseconds is sort of an upper bound on how fast you can do that kind of discrimination," he said.

Then there is the fact that referees simply cannot see everything.

University of Michigan's Meyer said the maximum number of players any one person could carefully track was four, meaning something would be missed even with multiple referees watching.

When referees do miss a crucial piece of evidence, their brain will fill in the gaps using past experiences to help them make the call.

"Filling in is really a deeply embedded part of human consciousness," New York University's Marcus said.

Just as a driver's brain would tell him a car was in his blind spot even though he could not see it, referees' brains would fill in what was missing, he said.


Obstructed views or bad angles are supplemented by the official's past experiences, something that may have happened when a botched call in early June cost Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game in Major League Baseball (MLB).

Scientists and even referees understand that the accuracy of calls increases with experience. However, additional practice does not always make perfect.

"You can train your eyes all day long to see as quick as possible, but we're talking about 300 milliseconds to see a 95-mile-an-hour fastball coming from a professional pitcher's rubber to home plate," said Kevin Gee, director of the Sports Vision Performance Center at the University of Houston College of Optometry.

Given the challenges for the human brain, even some staunch critics of technology to aid referees have changed their minds.

"I don't know if we can get any better at doing what we do," said retired MLB umpire Don Denkinger, who is remembered for an incorrect call in the 1985 World Series. "There's no super umpire sitting out there.

"You have plays that are going to pop up that are called wrong and if you don't want to use instant replay, you just have to accept them," added Denkinger, who no longer opposes the use of instant replays.

Even the scientists, however, recognize the appeal of the drama offered by human error.

"In real life, most of the time we do not have the possibility of engaging in instant replay in order to correct mistakes," Meyer said. "By keeping the technology out of play, we make the sport more traditionally lifelike and in some ways that can enhance the drama."

(Editing by Clare Fallon)