The New York Mets and the Kansas City Royals face off this week in the World Series — but it’s not just the players who are feeling the heat.
With each pitch and passing inning, fans experience the joy and the pain, too, says Art Markman, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin. “The more strongly we are engaged with a goal, the stronger the emotions we feel,” Markman tells Yahoo Health. “Because we are such a social species, humans are able to engage goals both related to our self, as well as to extend that self to social groups to which we belong.”
According to Diane Robinson, PhD, a neuropsychologist at University of Florida Health Cancer Center – Orlando Health, becoming a fan of a particular sports team is sort of like adopting the whole group into your family.
“This is something we call ‘social identity theory,’” she tells Yahoo Health. “As humans, we’re all animals, and we like to belong to a pack. A sports team gives you an immediate identity. You can be alone in a city at a bar, and people will interact with you based on your team affiliation, which helps overcome feelings of isolation. It’s your tribe. And that’s powerful — you may experience the same neural responses to pain as if it was happening to your loved one.”
Sports give us the opportunity to indulge a broad range of positive and negative emotions, strong as they may be, in a safe environment. “There are few opportunities to experience joy and sadness on this scale, but sports allows it to happen,” Markman says.
How exactly does it all happen? Here, we break down all the emotions, along with how your brain and body is processing them.
As a social species, we’ve adopted our team as our own, which means: Whatever they feel, you’ll be feeling, too. “We experience emotions when our motivational system is engaged in some goal,” says Markman. “The more strongly we are engaged with the goal, the stronger the emotions we feel.” This includes the pleasure and excitement characteristic of good plays and earned runs.
If your team jumps out to a lead, expect a burst of dopamine — the “happy” chemical — as your brain’s reward centers are activated. “The brain’s pleasure pathway is the ventral striatum,” says Robinson. “If you feel a burst of giddiness, or the German term ‘schadenfreude’ — it’s the brain’s response to the abject pain of the other team. Those pleasure areas are activated at the pain of a rival.” According to Robinson, the more competitive the game, the greater rush of endorphins (the chemical responsible for that pain-masking euphoric feeling) you’ll receive after every big play.
At the same time, sporting events are usually up-and-down affairs, so you can also experience the flipside of pleasure: disappointment. “It’s a neurometabolic cascading rollercoaster,” Robinson says. “This is all about your self-esteem. Their loss is your loss, and the pain areas of the brain light up.” These areas include the anterior insula and the anterior cingulate cortex. At the same time, says Robinson, “the neurons in the brain are putting you out on the field, stepping up to the plate like it’s happening to you.”