The Brain Science Behind Soccer Fans’ Emotional Rollercoaster

Fans react during the English Premier League soccer match between Aston Villa and Manchester City at Villa Park in Birmingham, England, Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022.

Chimauchem Nwosu The study shows fans’ brains react differently to team victories and losses, with rewarding areas activated during wins and introspective networks engaging during defeats. The reaction may increase disruptive or violent behavior, and offers insights into sports fandom and group dynamics.Sports fans often experience intense emotions when watching their favorite teams compete and, now, researchers are working to pinpoint just how these moments manifest in the human brain.Francisco Zamorano Mendieta, a key researcher in the study, explained via a statement that the study “aims to shed light on the behaviors and dynamics associated with extreme rivalry, aggression, and social affiliation within and between groups of fanatics.”Officials at Clínica Alemana de Santiago in Chile explored the neural underpinnings of joy and disappointment among football enthusiasts by employing magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to scan the brains of 43 male Chilean fans, split between supporters of Colo-Colo (22) and Universidad de Chile (21).Participants watched a series of match highlights featuring their teams scoring against rivals and vice versa. This setup was critical in studying the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality prevalent in sports fandom, according to Zamorano, who spent years researching this area.The study revealed distinct neural responses corresponding to the outcomes on the screen. When participants saw their team score, the ventral striatum, caudate, and lentiform nucleus – regions associated with the brain’s reward network – were notably active. The specified areas of the brain are vital parts of the reward system. This system releases dopamine, a pleasure-inducing neurotransmitter, whenever we achieve a goal or experience the thrill of our sports team winning.Conversely, brain areas linked to mentalization became active when their team conceded a goal, suggesting fans were trying to rationalize the unfavorable event. Furthermore, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) was deactivated during such moments, implying a potential increase in the likelihood of disruptive or violent behavior. Beyond PoliticsVideo: Massive Brawl Breaks Out at Argentina-Brazil World Cup Qualifier22 November 2023, 23:47 GMTThe dACC acts as a central junction in the brain, linking the limbic system – responsible for emotional and behavioral reactions – to the frontal cortex – crucial for decision-making and self-regulation.

"Sports fandom….presents a unique opportunity to analyze how intense devotion affects neural activity in a less contentious context, especially in understanding negative emotions, inhibitory control mechanisms, and adaptive strategies in a context less contentious than political or racial conflicts," Zamorano remarked.

Presented at the annual conference of the Radiological Society of North America, the findings offer insights into the neuroscience of sports fandom and shed light on broader aspects of human behavior, such as political partisanship and group fanaticism.


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