May 10th, 2010

Sports and the Brain, Part I: Fans and Feedback

By Kyle Morich

When I started college, I was at a severe disadvantage in casual conversation.  I considered myself a learned person, always up-to-date on the news and events facing our society, and my grasp of lighter pop culture happenings was more than serviceable.  Yet, the time I devoted to reading about ‘important’ issues like politics, economics, and business news was not proportional to my opportunities to share and discuss that knowledge.  Instead, I often found myself sitting in a silent ignorance as my dorm hall-mates hashed out issues plaguing the Boston Red Sox relief staff or extolled Tom Brady’s superiority over Peyton Manning (there were a lot of guys from New England on my hall).  That first semester, I made a conscious decision to ‘learn’ about sports so I could join the conversation.  Sports are a universal social language, granting the ability to engage in light discussion with anyone (well, usually male), provided you know two things: 1) what the big story is that day, and 2) what the big story is tomorrow.  An example:

How To Have A Successful Conversation About Sports

I had it all figured out.  I would watch ESPN’s SportsCenter news program each morning to get an idea for the sports current events, and was able to fake my way through any sports-related conversation.  I had no real passion for the Red Sox or Tom Brady, but that didn’t matter.  I had something to say.

But something unexpected happened in the process.  I actually became a sports fan.  I found myself legitimately interested in baseball, football, and basketball.  Sports are now a part of my daily routine, and I am embarrassed to report that most days my time spent watching SportsCenter and perusing ESPN.com outweigh the attention I pay to actual news sources like the Wall Street Journal.  How did this happen?  Feedback.

A University of Chicago study in 2008 found that watching and listening to sports has a positive affect on brain activity.  The study reports that those familiar with sports lingo and the movements associated with it could hear a description of a particular play and create a strong visualization of the action in their premotor cortext.  Similarly, other studies have discovered that watching a team play can activate mirror neurons and create a powerful association between the on-field/court action and personal experience.  Viewing or listening to sports with others has been shown to produce tangible physiological effects in the prefrontal cortex, like the release of oxytocin, that signal to the brain that a deep bond is being formed.

As a sports fan, I can all vouch for these affects.  I share season tickets to the Atlanta Falcons with my dad, and I feel a great sense of bonding with him at these games, even though the noise is such that meaningful conversation is impossible.  I also know firsthand the necessity of understanding a sport to get pleasure out of it.  I played Rugby Football in college.  When the local pub shows Rugby Union matches on the TV, I find myself cheering and excited, while my friends stare blankly, confused or indifferent to the action.  My very knowledge of the game changes the affect on my brain.

Deep down, this is all about Context and Feedback.  In our habit-based model of consumer behavior, behavior occurs within a context, and feedback occurs.  The brain learns from that feedback and, over time, successful behaviors with reinforcing feedback become habits. The more I study the teams and understand the subplots and the implications of the action, the more pleasure I derive from watching. The fact that I know about Steve Nash’s passion for Euro League soccer and subscribe to Jared Dudley’s Twitter Feed should have no impact on my experience with a Phoenix Suns basketball game, but there is no denying that I felt more personally invested in their victory over the San Antonio Spurs this year because of it.  The intensity of the feedback I received watching that game is heightened because of the knowledge I have about it and the players in it.  The intensity of feedback is critical to habit formation.  Before I was an avid sports fan, I could watch and enjoy a playoff basketball game, but I would do so infrequently.  This year, I’ve watched almost 80% of the games.

Because of a simple desire to make new friends in college, I went from a kid who didn’t know batting the cycle from a triple-double to a sports fanatic in a coveted demographic.  This is the power of feedback.

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