The Neuroscience of Fandom

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.

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Unless your mirror neurons can also tell what color jersey the players are wearing (and consequently only respond when the color is blue), I'm not sure how they would give you the feeling of loss rather than victory (or rather, confusing stalemate). I have the feeling something a little more complicated is going on here...

By neurotrash (not verified) on 13 Jun 2008 #permalink

Hmm, guess my mirror neurons were busy trying to figure out why the female announcer didn't have anything better to do than stand in the hallway and cover the injuries. Seriously, I believe group identity plays a big role in mirroring, even if it is a manufactured group. That said, the anguish on Gasol's face (Laker player) at various points was mirrored in my feelings of despair. For me, mirroring is a very individual activity. I always feel for the losing team members, even if they are not a team I follow, like or root for.

The mind surely has some mechanism for why people enjoy watching whatever it may be, but does that mechanism involve blurring the distinction between audience and stage? Probably so, though the explanatory power here seems somewhat limited. Important to explore at a cellular level, but not impressively revelatory as of yet in my opinion. So when we see people doing something for which we have a "vocabulary", something happens in our brains that helps explain why we enjoy it. I guess I don't strongly recognize the elegance in the proposed mirror neuron explanation and I'm not sure I completely identify with your inferences from it. I wasn't really expecting some Rube Goldberg-esque mechanism anyway.

Still sounds as speculative, but mirror neurons, the putative neural basis of action understanding, is at stake when wathing sports and other actions (we rehearse their actions indirectly in our heads)
But a more evolutionary explanation is also needed such as the necessity to compare and evalatuate other potential rivals in contest for resources.

I remember watching a college football game with my old roommate. "Our" team had the ball, 4th and goal at the end of the fourth quarter, and needed a touchdown to win. The play was a short pass to a receiver, and the receiver had to make a quick move to the right to avoid a defender right when he caught the ball. At that moment, my roommate jumped up out of his chair, and jumped to the right simultaneously with the receiver. He scored, we celebrated. Seems like something like a mirror neuron system was working in my roommate's head, and it was so strong that it took over his conscious action.

Great post. Doesn't Ramachandran think autism is correlated with a lack of mirror neuron activity?

Do autistic people identify with teams? Much less then normal. So, you are right if Ramachandran is right, and I am summarizing him right.

A quick easy way to test your hypothesis would be to get some higher functioning autistics, some aspergians, and some normal people together, and look at their emotions both as their teams score, and as players get hurt and fight. If, (like I would expect), the austistics and aspergians light up different then the normals, then that would be evidence for you, if Ramachandran in right (I think I remember reading evidence suggesting he was).

I think your theory presupposes a Western modernist/enlightenment view of the human agent as a unified "I", for example when you use the word "deluded" about the cells. There is no delusion if there is no universal human "I". In many cultures - especially pre-modern cultures - there are no boundaries between "I" and "we". And so there is no reason to think that the human brain has an inherent way of dividing between ourselves as fictional (?) individuals and as a tribe/group.

By RJ Andrews (not verified) on 15 Jun 2008 #permalink

Responding to RJ: given that we started out as part of our mother and then are separated physically at birth and eventually become socially independent of our parents (but perhaps not of our tribe) seems like our mind and brain workings would reflect that separation. If you read the JBTaylor's account of a left hem stroke reducing her mentally to an infant in a 37 year old body, she did get back to a preseparation state mentally and can now get back there at will as she found it an extrememly pleasant state of being. This is also what meditation enables. Metaphorically it's being in the garden and then choosing to get out, but always having the option of going back in any moment. Both non-dual and dual options are innate, seems to me.

Responding to TomK:

Great questions. I have worked as a neuropsychiatrist with developmentally disabled adults, including those with Autism Spectrum Disorders, during the past 10 years. In this work, I have found clinical evidence that, I believe, supports the hypothesis that mirror neurons may be involved in these conditions. In fact, not only may they suffer from a paucity of mirror neurons, but they may be able to grow mirror neurons through neurogenesis, as well. Through the use of a pattern of pharmacological treatment, alliance-building and a style of improvisation-enhancing psychotherapy, I and many of my colleagues think we may be witnessing the development of compassion and empathy in many of our patients. However,we have not had the advantage of fMRI scans, and can only show behavioral evidence. In any event, it does appear that the lives of these individuals may be enhanced as they are able to express greater satisfaction with their lives. I believe the future of this area of neuroscience has enormous potential.

Ange Lobue, MD, MPH, BSPharm
Diplomate, American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology
Member, Academy of Television Arts and Sciences

By Ange Lobue (not verified) on 16 Jun 2008 #permalink


By A. Ross Otto (not verified) on 16 Jun 2008 #permalink

It would be interesting to look at this in the context of musical performances, particularly where you can focus on one performer. Would you see different responses between people who were or were not 'tone deaf'? Would you see different responses among people with different levels of familiarity with the music, in particular those with different levels of training in that particular instrument?


Posted by: A. Ross Otto

LOLHulk! WIN! :-D

By themadlolscientist (not verified) on 19 Jun 2008 #permalink

It would be interesting to look at this in the context of musical performances.... Would you see different responses between people who were or were not 'tone deaf'?...

I know just enough about neurology to be able to assume I have a brain (=grin=), but I'm a professional choral singer (or was until I got hijacked to the boonies a while back), and anything related to music tends to catch my eye. Your question immediately reminded me of this interesting (and possibly relevant?) item from the Science Magazine website:

The brains of tune-deaf individuals know when a sour note has been played, but the people themselves are unaware of it.

I don't know what to make of this, but I expect that someone else here would.

By themadlolscientist (not verified) on 19 Jun 2008 #permalink