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Your Brain On The Wolfpack

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A big tip of the cap to reader Andrew, who sent me this piece by George Will about a new book that examines the psychological ramifications of rooting for a team with a history of futility: Your Brain on Cubs. NC State fans are in much the same predicament these days. Why do people eschew the bandwagon in favor of routine disappointment? How does that disappointment affect their mental states? Will writes:

Kelli Whitlock Burton, a science writer, and Hillary R. Rodman, an associate professor of psychology at Emory University, cite studies of activities in the portion of the brain that registers depression, sadness, grief and euphoria, three of which are pertinent to Cub fans. Burton and Rodman note that drug addiction can cause changes in neural sensitivity and structure, and they wonder whether a Cub fan "has subtle and long-lasting changes in his or her brain reward circuitry, comparable to a kind of addiction."

Back on selection Sunday, in regards to the CBI, I wrote, "I'm sure we won't be in, and for some reason I feel a little disappointed about this. Which means there's a part of me that apparently still wants to watch this team play basketball...and that makes no sense whatsoever." This was a mere three days after a lame and frustrating effort ended our lame and frustrating season. This Wolfpack team was not only unbearable, it was unlikable. It being probable that an additional NCSU basketball game would mean far more anguish than satisfaction, what rational reason could there possibly be for me wanting to see that game happen? I couldn't come up with one. I'm just addicted, and I can't help it.

Every year, it seems, there's a message board thread in which someone says, "I can't do this anymore." I say that sort of thing too--I said as much in that Hurricanes post--but I don't for a second mean it, and I don't think anyone else really does, either. It's hard enough for me just to reach a point where I can watch the games but remain emotionally detached; how long I'm able to maintain that state, though, I am never sure. The 87-86 loss to Duke on March 1st, for example, was the worst I'd felt after a game all season. And I was totally checked out when that thing tipped off.

Okay, so many of us are addicted to our sports teams, terrible though they may be. I didn't need no fancypants book to tell me that. Here's where it gets more interesting:

The sometimes terrible truth is that being a sports fan is a physical phenomenon as well as a psychological condition: It involves observable (with imaging technology) alterations of brain matter. Jordan Grafman, a senior investigator at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, was born and raised in Chicago, so he knows whereof he speaks when he speaks, politely, about the "paradox" of being a Cub fan even though baseball is supposed to provide relief from life's problems. Grafman has been to a pleasant purgatory, Wrigley Field, and returned with good news: Yes, rooting for the Cubs is a minority taste because it is an interminable tutorial in delayed gratification, but "there is some evidence that being in the majority (everyone loves a winner) reduces reflective thinking."

Rooting for a loser makes one thoughtful, or perhaps neurotic, which on Chicago's North Side may be a distinction without a difference. "The scientific literature," Grafman says, "suggests that fans of losing teams turn out to be better decision-makers and deal better with divergent thought, as opposed to the unreflective fans of winning teams."

As Andrew summarized in his email to me:

So, we that must constantly suffer in athletics, in turn tend to be more thoughtful, analytical and, yes, neurotic. We do not see the world through rosy eyes and thus confront situations, even the ones that have nothing to do with sports, in different ways.

Not that the other, far happier fans would notice. Their brain is pumped up with higher levels of the pleasure-causing dopamine, thanks to the successful fortunes of their team, and they are too euphoric to bother with reflection or deeper thoughts.

Thus it is that we State fans diverge from the Tar Heel faithful. "Live in the now, man," they say, then return to enjoying their stupid awesome basketball team. "Wait 'til next year," we lament, then return to weeping quietly.

But! A bonus: the next time your significant other complains about you watching the NC State game, you can just be all like, "baby, I'm sharpening my mental faculties! And could you make me some nachos?"

When will then be now? Soon, we can only hope.

There is some bad news, however:

Burton and Rodman report that scientists are identifying "the chemical bases of long-lasting brain changes after social defeat, with the neurotransmitter serotonin—also heavily implicated in clinical depression—among the substances most clearly involved." In fans, as in players, a team's success or failure can cause hormonal changes, particularly in the production of testosterone. Does that mean Cub fans, in a kind of Darwinian "natural deselection," have trouble reproducing?

As if a 15-16 season isn't emasculating enough.