Your Brain on Sports


With the Olympics finally on, we thought it would be a good time to share a little of what we have learnt about fan behaviour and the extent to which watching your team affects your mind and body.


For the games that really matter, from the moment the whistle blows, or buzzer sounds our emotions can feel like they are on an all time high. Adrenaline takes over and the thrill, uncertainty, fear, hope keeps us on the edge of our seats; but what’s really going on is far more than a will for your side to do well.


The feeling of connection, it is now understood, actually comes from a phenomenon deep within the brain. Neurophysiologists at the University of Parma in Italy made an accidental discovery about the spectating mind in the 1990s, during their work on parts of the brain responsible for directing muscle movement. The story goes that whilst monitoring monkeys, whose brains were wired up specifically to understand which neurons fired when the monkey held a peanut, noticed that the same neurons were firing up when the monkey saw the lab team holding peanuts. Quite literally, the monkey’s brain was acting out what it was seeing. Years of research later and we now know more about what is going on. ‘Mirror neurons’ are a subset of the more familiar motor neurons (responsible for carrying messages from the brain to our muscles) and they activate when we see a familiar action, firing up for exactly as long as the action lasts. In fact, it is about one fifth of the neurons that ‘play along’ when we are spectating.


For the sports fan this means that we are instantly able to understand and even emotionally respond, as though it were us on the court or field. Mirror neurons can provoke increases in our heart and respiration rates, and a percentage of them will do this even if we only hear a sound associated with an action (say, the crack of a bat).


Gives new meaning to the expression “monkey see monkey do”…