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A fan in Toronto's Maple Leaf Square reacts while watching the Leafs take on the Boston Bruins during Game 6 of the Eastern Conference quarter-final last spring. (Michelle Siu for The Globe and Mail)
A fan in Toronto's Maple Leaf Square reacts while watching the Leafs take on the Boston Bruins during Game 6 of the Eastern Conference quarter-final last spring. (Michelle Siu for The Globe and Mail)

Go neurons go! Science explains why it hurts to be a Leafs fan – sports diehards are wired that way Add to ...

By the time Boston Bruins centre David Krejci sailed through the neutral zone with less than two minutes left in Game 7, I was already CORFing.

I’d moved back to Toronto two weeks earlier, after a four-year stint in Australia, just in time to hop on the bandwagon of the Maple Leafs’ first playoff appearance in nine years. I looked on with casual interest as Boston took a 3-1 series lead. I began BIRGing – Basking In Reflected Glory, the appropriation of success that underlies the psychology of sports fandom – as Toronto scraped back to even the series and then took a 4-1 lead late into the third period of the deciding game.

But as the now-infamous Collapse of 2013 gathered steam – Mr. Krecji across the blue line, the puck swinging back to Patrice Bergeron at the point – I was frantically switching to BIRGing’s ignoble twin, Cutting Off Reflected Failure. In my head, “We’re going to win it!” shifted to “They’re going to blow it.”

It didn’t work. As Mr. Bergeron’s soft wrist shot fluttered into the net to tie the game, synapses in the most ancient parts of my brain fired, hormone levels flared, and I got that sick feeling in my stomach that usually indicates I’ve personally done something very bad.

I may be crazy, but I’m not alone. This is a sports-mad country where people spend an estimated $1.5-billion on tickets and merchandise every year. Canadians decorate their cars, homes and bodies with the logos of their home teams and paint their faces at hockey and football games. Many, many of us are doomed to go through serious mood swings in February, when the Winter Olympics take place.

If this is all just an elaborate social ritual, then it’s an enduring one. More than 2,500 years ago, the philosopher Xenophanes was already complaining about the rabid sports fanaticism of his fellow Greeks, which he considered a “very wrong custom.”

Today, as researchers begin to explore the brain activity of diehard sports lovers, they’re discovering that Xenophanes only had half the story: Our feverish devotion to professional sports franchises is as much biological as cultural.

“When we talk about fan behaviour,” says Eric Simons, a California-based science journalist and author, “what we’re really talking about is human nature.”

Watching is like doing

This summer, Australian researchers at the University of Western Sydney published a study in which volunteers lounged comfortably in reclining chairs and watched a bland video of someone walking and running. The faster the person on the screen ran, the higher the pulse and breathing rates of the spectators rose, along with elevated blood flow and muscle nerve activity – as if, in some odd way, their reflexive responses had difficulty telling the difference between seeing an action and doing it.

In fact, that’s exactly what’s happening, explains Mr. Simons. When you throw a ball, you fire a certain subset of neurons in your premotor cortex, the part of the brain that controls the movement of our limbs. When you watch someone throw a ball, about 20 per cent of those same neurons fire. This “mirror neuron system” underlies our sense of empathy and is perhaps what allowed humans to develop language, according to some researchers.

For sports fans, it means that you’re right there in the game, swinging at every pitch and bracing for every bodycheck.

This instinctive response isn’t limited to your neurons: Your hormones also rise and fall with the fortunes of your team. In men in particular, testosterone levels increase in preparation for any challenge to their status, says Justin Carré, a professor (and ex-hockey player) at Nippissing University in North Bay, Ont., who studies “social neuroendocrinology” – how hormones interact with the brain to influence social behaviour.

“Before a sports competition, testosterone will rise in anticipation, then it will rise even more during the game in winners than in losers,” Dr. Carré says. “And those differences will mean something for subsequent competitive and aggressive behaviour.”

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