Your brain on March Madness

Last weekend was arguably the best sports weekend of the year.  It was the start of March Madness. 48 games were played between Thursday and Sunday and for the first time in history, a #16 seed (UMBC) beat a #1 seed (Virginia - the overall #1 seed).

March madness offers exactly 63 opportunities to be wowed and to root for the underdog. There are blowouts, overtime wins, and upsets. And at the end, there’s the most moving video montage in all of sports. Cue: “one shining moment”. If you’re a sports fan, what’s not to love?

Let’s explore the psychology and neuroscience of being a sports fan.

BIRGing and CORFing

You know that high you get when your team wins? You proudly wear all your paraphernalia for weeks afterward (or until the next season) and exclaim “WE did it!”, even though, frankly, you had nothing to do with the team’s success. That’s called BIRGing, or “Basking In Reflected Glory”. BIRGing and CORFing (acronyms at their finest) are two fascinating social psychology concepts and are often used to understand sports fandom. CORFing is just the opposite of BIRGing, and stands for “Cutting Off Reflected Failure”. When a team loses, its fans, sadly, tend to dissociate from them - removing any evidence of their fandom. There are few utterances of “we lost” - instead, it becomes “they lost”.

Is there more than just a psychological response to being a sports fan? Of course there is.

Physiological response to being a sports fan

Studies have shown that when your team wins, your testosterone increases as much as, or close to, the athletes who actually played the game. Dopamine also surges in some people, which is the neurotransmitter involved in the pleasure center of the brain. The increase in both dopamine and testosterone is more robust after an unexpected win, so think about that during the next upset.

But why do we get so involved, emotionally and physiologically, while spectating? It may have something to do with specific neurons in our brain. Fascinating, right?

Mirror neurons

When we observe another person performing an action, a subset of neurons, called mirror neurons, activates. Interestingly, these neurons represent 20% of the total neurons that fire in the brain of the person performing the action. Furthermore, the length of time these mirror neurons fire matches the duration of the action itself. Mirror neurons were first discovered in the 1980’s and have been found, so far, in four areas of the brain: the prefrontal cortex, the primary somatosensory cortex, the inferior parietal cortex, and the supplementary motor area. Through the activation of these neurons, our brain is mirroring the experience we’re observing. These impressive neurons help us to learn and likely contribute to our ability to empathize as well.

So there you have it - the psychology, physiology and neuroscience of being a sports fan. Now since your bracket is most likely already busted, just enjoy the next two weeks for what they are: madness.