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The emotional explosion of the true fan

The heart may be beating wildly when the home team wins, but it's the brain that captivates researchers as science observes the chemical chaos at work.

October 21, 2002|Benedict Carey | Times Staff Writer

Love may be a many-splendored thing, and friendship a comfort forever, but the late-inning home run that sent the Angels to the World Series was an emotional event that dropped some red-clad grown-ups to their knees in tears.

"Release," said lawyer James Spitser, 63, of Los Angeles. An Angels fan since the team's founding in 1961, he witnessed the Adam Kennedy homer from the stands. "Pure release and joy. People around me were losing it, and the noise was unbelievable. We've waited a long time for this."

For all the action on the field during big sporting events, there's at least as much physiological churning going on in the hearts and minds of fans. Recent findings in neurology and biochemistry suggest that the rewards of being a sports fan touch the very deepest emotional centers of the brain, affecting how we think and behave in some of the same ways drugs such as cocaine do, but with a positive effect on our overall health.

The sharp, sudden euphoria after Kennedy's homer -- or after San Francisco Giant Kenny Lofton's series-winning hit in the National League championship -- is the result of sudden shifts in brain chemistry, researchers say. Watching a ballgame is what brain researchers describe as an experience of unpredictable reward. In a tight game, hanging on every pitch, you are suspended between victory and defeat, unsure when that crucial play will decide the game.

Researchers have just begun to observe this emotional state by doing brain scans on people playing games in which they can win money. David Zald, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University, is using this technique to track levels of a chemical called dopamine, which appear to rise sharply when people take euphoria-causing drugs such as cocaine. Dopamine is a chemical messenger thought to influence brain processes that control emotional response and the experience of pleasure and pain.

In the anticipatory, edge-of-your-seat phase, circulating dopamine levels may go down slightly, Zald said.

At the same time, surges of the stress hormone cortisol are knotting the stomach by prompting the release of digestive juices and -- especially for fans of teams that have known futility, like the Angels and Giants -- actually awakening memories of previous strikeouts, errors and other blown opportunities, according to Dr. Hans Breiter, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston who studies how brain chemistry affects expectation and reward.

When the bat snaps and the ball sails into the home bleachers for a winning home run, there's probably an instantaneous spike of dopamine levels in the brains of local fans, said Zald. In a study due to be presented next month, he measured changes in dopamine levels in 10 adults playing a card game for money. When the subjects won a hand, and some dollars, levels spiked significantly, by 7% to 10%. "That's what we think might be causing the feelings of elation," he said.

The people in Zald's study and others like it expect to win some money, however, and not lose any. Angels fans and Giants fans by contrast are awash in memories of past failures: Deep down, they were not expecting victory. "This sets the range of expectancies lower, like you're spinning a roulette wheel with all negative numbers and one zero," Breiter said. "So when you spin and it actually comes up positive -- the Angels won! -- then the effect of the chemical changes is amplified. We saw the same thing happen here with the Patriots last year. No one gave them a chance of even getting to the Super Bowl and they end up winning it, and it was overwhelming" for some fans.

Tears of joy may well up from just that chemical overload. "The beauty-queen-contestant effect," Zald said. "I don't think anyone knows exactly why that happens, but it may be from too much arousal, where you're getting this reaction, tears, that seems incompatible with the joy you're feeling."

Researchers have long known that testosterone levels also surge in many devoted fans when their teams are on the march, as do heart rates and brain waves. In a 1994 study, psychologists in Georgia analyzed saliva samples from 21 Brazilian and Italian soccer fans before Brazil beat Italy to win the World Cup. By the end of the game, the Brazilians' testosterone levels had spiked by about 30%, while the Italians had plunged by about 30%. The same kind of response has been shown in college basketball fans. In another experiment, investigators in Florida found that the sight of the college football team making spectacular plays produced in local fans about the same increases in heart rate and perspiration as the sight of erotic pictures.

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