Even referees' brains have their limits

Sun Aug 1, 2010 8:03pm EDT
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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.   Continued...

<p>Netherlands' John Heitinga is shown the red card by referee Howard Webb of England during their 2010 World Cup final soccer match against Spain at Soccer City stadium in Johannesburg July 11, 2010. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez</p>