Lin is known not just for scoring but for "assists"--that is, he's good at passing the ball to teammates who are in a position to score. Since helping
teammates score is a form of selflessness, it's tempting to invoke stereotypes about collectivist Asian values, but that's not where I'm heading.
Being a good passer in basketball isn't the same as being a good passer in football. Quarterbacks tend to go sequentially through their targets--they
look at the primary receiver, and if he's not open they look at the next prospect, and so on. In basketball, the great passers are simultaneously
aware of several targets at once; their focus expands toward the edge of their peripheral vision. Indeed, sometimes the success of the pass depends on
never looking directly at the person you're passing to, as that would tip off your opponents.
One of the most intriguing cultural contrasts between eastern and western ways of viewing the world was documented in experiments by the psychologist
Richard Nisbett, some of them in collaboration with Takahiko Masuda. The upshot was that East Asians tend to view scenes more holistically than
In one experiment, East Asians and Westerners were shown pictures and then asked to remember what they'd seen. Westerners tended to recall the dominant
foreground image. If the picture was of a beaming tourist with a mountain stream in the background, they'd remember the tourist clearly. The stream?
Not so much. East Asians were on balance better than westerners at remembering the background.
Related tendencies showed up when people were asked to take pictures of other people. East Asians, compared to westerners, framed the pictures so that the
individual was smaller relative to the entire scene.
An assessment of eastern and western art found something similar. East Asian landscape paintings, wrote Nisbett and Masuda, "tend to put the horizon
high as it would be seen by a bird flying over the landscape or an artist perched on a high outcropping. Western landscapes put the horizon low, as it
would be seen from the ground. Consequently, less of the landscape is seen."
I played basketball in high school. Actually, "played" is misleading. I mostly sat on the bench--though during my freshman year I did, to my credit,
have the prescience to play at the high school where the great Shaquille O'Neal later played. Anyway, I remember a kind of perceptual "frame shift" you
needed to undergo when, on a fast break, or while driving the lane, you had targets to your left and right and needed to be aware of them
simultaneously. It was a kind of broadening of your focus, toward a more wide angle view. You stared straight ahead but your focus wasn't straight
ahead; in a sense, there was no focus.
Is it crazy to think that the perceptual tendencies that Nisbett and Masuda documented in East Asians could equip them for this sort of thing?