Sports fans know that watching their team brings a feeling of joy, but watching them lose has the opposite effect – and these “feelings” can be seen in our brains.
Researchers at the Clínica Alemana de Santiago in Chile scanned the brains of soccer fans and found that the sight of their team’s goal lit up the area associated with reward.
When their team lost, a network of brain regions involved in mentalizing became more active, a sign that they were trying to make sense of what had just happened.
In other words, we feel good when we see our team scoring. And when we see our team’s rivals scoring, we try to rationalize.
As study participants watched their team score, the orange regions of their brains lit up. And when their team’s rival scored, the blue regions were more active
“This study aims to shed light on the behaviors and dynamics associated with extreme rivalry, aggression and social affiliation within and between groups of fanatics,” said study researcher Francisco Zamorano Mendieta, a researcher at the Clínica Alemana de Santiago in Chile, in one opinion.
The results were presented Tuesday at the annual conference of the Radiological Society of North America.
Zamorano and his colleagues recruited 43 Chilean male soccer fans for the study: 22 who support the Colo-Colo team and 21 fans of the Universidad de Chile team.
These men watched a compilation of games while their brains were scanned using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
In particular, the collections included videos of the teams scoring their opponents and videos of the teams scoring.
Zamorano has been researching football fans for years to examine the “us” versus “them” mentality. Therefore, the team that would score a fan’s favorite had to be not just anyone, but a rival – the “them” versus his “us.”
As study participants watched their team score against an opponent, scientists saw the ventral striatum, caudate nucleus and lentiform nucleus activate.
The ventral striatum in the forebrain is a node in the reward network that connects multiple areas. The caudate nucleus, located slightly deeper in the brain, supports learning and memory.
Right next to it is the nucleus lentiformis, which is responsible for working memory, executive function and learning.
These three brain regions form a crucial segment of the reward network that gives us a dose of the feel-good chemical dopamine when we accomplish something or, in the case of sports, when we watch our team accomplish something.
Recognizing an opposing outcome in your team can trigger a specific pattern of activity in the brain. Scientists suspect these brain responses may provide greater insight into other forms of fanaticism, including political and religious extremism
However, as fans watched their team score, other areas of the brain were activated. This so-called “mentalizing” network supports our ability to think about our mental state and that of others.”
The researchers behind the new study suspect it may be a mental defense mechanism against the pain of defeat – like how one might start to rationalize “if only he had jumped sooner” immediately after you watched your own team allow a goal.
But at the same time something else is happening as the mentalizing network lights up.
The dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) becomes deactivated, which could increase the likelihood that a person will act disruptively or violently.
The dACC is a center of the brain. It connects the limbic system, which is associated with behavioral and emotional responses, with the frontal cortex, which supports self-management and decision-making.
In other words, when you watch your team perform poorly, the region of the brain that connects several areas associated with self-control and decision-making becomes less active. This can increase the likelihood of disruptive or violent behavior.
“When they lose, the mentalization network can be activated, putting the fan in an introspective state,” Zamorano said.
“This could ease some of the pain of loss.” “We also observed inhibition of the brain center connecting the limbic system to the frontal cortex, which impedes the mechanism that regulates cognitive control and increases the likelihood of engaging in disruptive or violent behavior to decay.”
Studying these avid soccer fans could offer insights into political partisanship and other forms of fanaticism, but in a less volatile context than racial conflict or political violence, Zamorano said.
“Sports fandom … provides a unique opportunity to analyze how intense devotion influences neural activity in a less adversarial context, particularly by highlighting the role of negative emotions, associated inhibitory control mechanisms, and possible adaptive strategies,” he said.