Your Brain on Sports: Author Eric Simons Talks About the Science of Obsessing Over Your Favorite Teams

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Gil Riego Jr.
By Emilie Mutert

Bay Area sports fan and journalist Eric Simons wasn't sure why he stayed so faithful to his favorite teams -- the Bears and the Sharks -- even though they were notorious chokers. Was his loyalty based on romantic love? Was it an addiction? And what was going on inside his mind and body during games that would get his pulse up and make him sweat, as though he were one of those athletes down on the field?

Simons' new book, The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession, explains the research about what's going on inside our minds and bodies when our favorite teams win, lose, and keep us on the edge of our seats. He interviewed leaders in the fields of psychology, neuroscience and endocrinology, along with some seriously devoted sports fans in his quest for an explanation.

As college basketball comes to a close and the baseball season gets underway, Simons covers some of the finer points with us. The conclusions? As with most relationships, it's complicated.


SF Weekly: Can you describe what's going on hormonally for men when they watch sports?

Eric Simons: The research on this is really interesting and pretty active right now so none of this is completely certain. But basically, if you're male and you're watching this game, at the start of the game you get a little bit of a rise in your testosterone, because testosterone is a social hormone, and when you're in a social situation it likes to come out and play. This is an evolutionary strategy for reproduction that's catching you when you're watching sports. So men watching sports start feeling this challenge, this social challenge, and testosterone's going up in response to a perception that, "Oh I might have to fight here." And there's a lot of psychological reasons why you're actually thinking you're involved when you're some guy standing in the stands with paint on your chest. You really perceive this very much as, "I'm going to be in a fight." So your testosterone's going up. And then the theory is, and this is supported mostly by research, that not only does it go up in response to this perceived challenge but if your team wins, if your team succeeds, it goes up then. And if your team loses, fails or if there's some depressing point, it goes down. The idea is when you win, that's the time to capitalize on that win and go win again. So that's when you get this testosterone spike.


These testosterone changes are really only seen in men. But myself, I'm a female sports fan, and I get depressed after games when my team loses. So what is going on inside of me when I see my team lose a heartbreaker in overtime?

That kind of goes to show how unimportant testosterone is to the whole experience of how you're feeling. You go back to these studies of men they did in the Netherlands, where you're just allowed to just dose people directly with testosterone, and they'll knock people's testosterone out entirely, and then give half of them a shot of testosterone and half of them nothing, and ask them whether they could tell which they got, and no one could tell.

So the way you feel at any particular time, even if your testosterone's high, you may or may not know. It's very complex. There's another interesting study about the 2008 presidential election where they were looking at a lot of different hormones. But what's kind of neat about this one is that they asked people a lot of questions in advance about how much they cared about the election, how strongly they felt about the candidates. Between men and women, you know the women cared just as much about the election, they felt just as strongly about the candidates. They measured their cortisol, which is the hormone associated with stress, and the stress levels were basically the same between men and women.

And so women clearly cared just as much about the election, they were just as elated or disappointed on election night, but only men had the testosterone increase or decrease. And so there's a lot more to it. There's a lot of the elements of a relationship tied into the way we attach to sports teams, Their triumphs and their failures are, on a very literal level, my triumphs and my failures, so when you see them disappointed or frustrated or losing or when you see them winning, you feel those things and you process those things as if they were very personally happening to you. And so I think that it shows you don't need testosterone to feel pretty strongly about sports.


Are these empathic responses then?

All this stuff ties together. So you have these neurons in your brain, mirror neurons, kind of the trend in neuroscience is to attribute a lot of behavior to these things, these are basically the underlying function of human empathy, that this is where our ability to understand other people comes from.

We understand gestures and actions and things like pain, emotions, grimaces, facial expressions fundamentally. We don't need to learn, we don't need as a baby to see someone grimace in pain and be told that that person is in pain to understand, because in our own brain we see that face and we mirror that expression, we run this simulation in our head and we say, "Oh that face is a pain face, I know what pain feels like." And so part of what's happening when you watch sports is that you're empathizing with all the action you see. You're really running this simulation of not just the actions of shooting the ball, but in terms of grimaces, pain, elation.

Another interesting thing is the hormones, it doesn't tell the full story. Obviously when you're watching sports, as a fan of one particular team, you're kind of shutting off your empathy for the other team, which is why you can watch another player get injured and be like, "Hahaha, I'm not empathizing with his pain at all."


So you're selecting which players you empathize with.

Right; and like with your hormones, there's a lot of control that you have over how they react. The same thing with testosterone; it goes up when you win, and goes down when you lose, but you have to care first. Your mirror neurons, they actively empathize.

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