It happens to me every time: I tell myself that it’s just a game, that these overpaid basketball superstars don’t really have any loyalty to a particular team, place, city, etc., that I really shouldn’t care about the outcome of the NBA finals. And yet and yet: despite my self-awareness, I can’t help but nervously pace during the 4th quarter, as I watch my Lakers surrender a 24 point lead. (The possessive pronouns of sports fan are so odd, considering that Kobe Bryant made more money in the 4th quarter than I will in the next decade.) And then, after the heartbreaking loss, I’m way too upset to sleep. I have to wait for the adrenaline in my blood to breakdown and for my pulse to return to resting state. It’s such an annoying state of being, mostly because I know that my mild and meaningless suffering is a complete waste of emotion.
So why can’t I not care? I’m sure the etiology of fandom has many root causes, from the basic Us. vs Them mentality of social primates to the sheer pleasure of watching bodily grace. But I’d like to propose a cellular mechanism for fandom: mirror neurons. I know this circuit of cells in the pre-motor cortex has become tragically hip in recent years, having been associated with everything from autism to empathy. But I still find mirror neurons to be an elegant explanation for why my brain is so riveted when I watch someone else run around on a court.
A quick primer: In 1996, three Italian neuroscientists, Giacomo Rizzolatti, Leonardo Fogassi, and Vittorio Gallese put an electric probe into the premotor cortex of monkeys. They discovered that inside these primate brains there were networks of cells that “store vocabularies of motor actions.” Just as there are grammars of language, rules for forming a sentence, there are grammars of movement. These populations of cells are the bodily “sentences” we use every day, the ones our brain has chosen to retain and refine.
But these cells aren’t just essential for performing complex actions. As Rizzolatti, Fogassi, and Gallese wrote: “The main functional characteristic of mirror neurons is that they become active both when the monkey makes a particular action (for example, when grasping an object or holding it) and when it observes another individual making a similar action.” In other words, these peculiar cells mirror, on our inside, the outside world; they enable us to internalize the actions of another. They collapse the distinction between seeing and doing.
This suggests that when I watch Kobe glide to the basket for a dunk, a few deluded cells in my premotor cortex are convinced that I, myself, am touching the rim. And when he hits a three pointer, my mirror neurons light up as I’ve just made the crucial shot. They are what bind me to the game, breaking down that 4th wall separating fan from player. I’m not upset because my team lost: I’m upset because it literally feels like I lost, as if I had been on the court.
Obviously, this is all rampant speculation. But when you think about all the things that people love to watch, from sports to porn, you begin to realize that the brain must have some mechanism for blurring the distinction between audience and stage.