Sports fandom is either an aspect of a person's fundamental identity, or completely incomprehensible to those who aren't fans at all. What is happening in our brains and bodies when we feel strong emotion while watching a game? How do sports fans resemble political junkies, and why do we form such a strong attachment to a sports team? Journalist Eric Simons presents in-depth ...
Sports fandom is either an aspect of a person's fundamental identity, or completely incomprehensible to those who aren't fans at all. What is happening in our brains and bodies when we feel strong emotion while watching a game? How do sports fans resemble political junkies, and why do we form such a strong attachment to a sports team? Journalist Eric Simons presents in-depth research in an accessible and brilliant way, sure to interest readers of Jonah Lehrer and Malcolm Gladwell.
Through reading the literature and attending neuroscience conferences, talking to fans, psychologists, and scientists, and working through his issues as part of a collaboration with the NPR science program RadioLab, Eric Simons hoped to find an answer that would explain why the attractive force of this relationship with treasured sports teams is so great that we can't leave it.
Simons (Darwin Slept Here), a fervent supporter of the Univ. of California’s football team and the San Jose Sharks, examines the passionate, sometimes intense, behavior of sports fans, whether it’s voluntarily enduring another season of a team’s futility or dressing up for a game like it’s Halloween. Adroitly mixing research with feature reporting, Simons unveils some intriguing discoveries. That sense of dread you get watching a play unfold? That comes from the brain’s mirror neurons, which make seeing an action feel similar to performing an action. Fans not only identify with a team, but with the values of its fan base, which Simons shows by talking to the docile, charitable members of Raider Nation. And the reason why Cleveland fans keep subjecting themselves to their teams’ endless misery, Simons argues, is because they know “that short-term negative costs have long-term positive benefits”—otherwise known as pride. There’s a lot of science to digest, but Simons’s affable writing style—and his great eagerness to profile actual people, including himself—infuses the data with heart and soul. “Sports,” Simons writes, “can be a kind of laboratory for exploring the way we’re constructed and why we operate the way we do.” (Apr.)
In this often heady blend of science, philosophy and sociology, Simons (Univ. of California Graduate School of Journalism; Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin's South America, 2009) tries to get at the root of fandom, that sometimes appalling display of irrational behavior, which appears to be "a species-level design flaw." "[E]mpathy, action, language, pride, identity, self, reward, relationships, love, addiction, perception, pain and happiness," writes the author--"all this stuff is frothing around on the inside trying to beat its way out of your body like an alien chestbuster." In the course of his investigation, Simons touches on each of these and more: the hormonal changes sports provoke and the malignant force of the endocrine system; the part played by mirror neurons in empathy and in addiction and violence; the emotional push that keeps us coming back; the possibility that defeat can physically warp your brain; dopamine, the brain's reward system, inciting passion or addiction; the human need for belonging and the deep meaning that comes in being part of the enterprise; the biological, cultural and individual motivations for going to war on the field or court. The book is mostly enjoyable not least of all since so much is nebulous and untethered but achingly real to any sports fan. Simons is open and patient to intelligent theories but skeptical and willing to trust in his own experiences. He is also a bit of a tempered hepcat--"Plato's rigging the thing so that Socrates goes last and blows everyone away with his crazy philosophical skills"--informal amid all the lab work and theory building, yet diligently fashioning a window through which to witness the arch of human emotions and, surprisingly, the degree of choice and control we possess over those emotions. An intriguing ride through "all the wondrous quirks and oddities in human nature."
Eric Simons is the author of Darwin Slept Here (published by Overlook). He is a contributor to NPR's RadioLab, the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others, and he teaches at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He lives in San Francisco.