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Neuroscience Explains Why You’re a Crazy Sports Fan

Summer camps bring a lot of memories for people- swimming, cliff jumping, canoeing and more. Most people experience significant life moments at camp like when they had their first kiss outside their cabin or learned how to wakeboard.

I used to go to Camp Patmos located on Kelleys Island in Lake Erie. Most summer’s growing up I would spend a week there and occasionally my family would go to a family camp week.

Camp Patmos offered tubing, wakeboarding, biking, water skiing, crafts etc. You’d think my favorite memories from camp would involve some of those activities, however, my favorite summer camp memory doesn’t stem from any of them.

Instead, it comes from one family camp week that happened to be the same week as the men’s 2006 World Cup- Italy came out on top. There were no TV’s in the cabins which were your typically bunk bed filled wooden floor cabins.

Since this was before everyone owned Ipads and could stream anything you wanted my dad and I had to get find another solution to keep up with the final games. We quickly found out one of the year-round employees had a TV in their home and convinced them to let us sneak in to watch the game.

Sure enough, the next day we skipped whatever activities were going on and snuck away to sit on the striped rug on the cabin on the floor glued to the TV watching the game unfold. Feeling the ups and downs of the game, emotionally invested in the outcome which didn’t even include our home country.

How is it that onlookers become so connected to a game that they feel emotionally involved in a game they aren’t even playing in? Just take a look at these few faces of fans from the current World Cup- which I would like to say has been a tournament that just keeps on giving.

Mexico fans at the World Cup.


Empathy vs. Sympathy

To understand how fans, feel so much they visually show signs of extreme emotion first we need to define sympathy and empathy.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines sympathy as, “feelings of concern or compassion resulting from an awareness of the suffering or sorrow of another.”

In comparison, the APA defines empathy as, “understanding a person from his or her frame of reference rather than one’s own, or vicariously experiencing that person’s feelings, perceptions, and thoughts. Empathy does not, of itself, entail motivation to be of assistance, although it may turn into sympathy or personal distress, which may result in action. In psychotherapy, therapist empathy for the client can be a path to the comprehension of the client’s cognitions, affects, motivations, or behaviors.”

In simpler words, sympathy is being able to logically understand what someone else is going through and have compassion for their circumstances. Empathy is being able to take a walk in their shoes and feel the same emotions that the other person is feeling.

Let’s talk more about empathy.


What Are Mirror Neurons?

In 2004, Singer and his colleagues began the study into empathy through neuroscience and lead us down the path that brought us mirror neurons (Lamm and Majdandžićab, 2014).

Singer and colleagues learned that feeling pain physically and emotionally with empathy causes the same neural activations in the brain (Lamm and Majdandžićab, 2014). Like when you watch a hard tackle on your favorite player and cringe as though you felt the cleat on your ankle as much as he did.

Over 1,000 scientific articles later and we know that there is a connection between parts of empathy and immediate emotional experiences. Because of this connection, we are able to understand and feel the same way as others because we process those observations and knowledge through our own emotional system (Lamm and Majdandžićab, 2014).

“Mirror neurons allow us to feel the same things someone else is feeling.”

Giacomo Rizzolatti, an Italian neuroscientist, continued to build on Singer and colleagues work with the discovery of mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are what allow us to process others experiences through our own emotions, more simply, to understand by feeling (Sternberg, 2017).

Mirror neurons are exactly like they sound- they fire in our brains the same way when we watch someone do something as they would if we do that activity ourselves.

Mirror neurons allow us to feel the same things someone else is feeling because they activate the same way watching someone score a goal as they would if we scored the goal ourselves causing significant jubilation.


Mirror Neurons and Crazy Sports Fans

We want to feel the magic of the World Cup- we want to live vicariously through the players on the field doing things we can only imagine doing ourselves. Mirror neurons allow us to do that.

They allow us to feel the intensity, physical exhaustion, and thrill each player on the pitch feels. In the bigger picture mirror neurons, allow us to directly experience the emotions of those around you allows for a sense of connection and shared experiences.

The World Cup is a global thread that connects countries and people together over the empathy and emotional feeling of watching a match.

Not only do mirror neurons let us feel the emotions and action of performing amazing skills on the pitch but also allow us to feel and connect with millions of people across the globe over the love of the beautiful game.


Learning New Skills by Watching Sports

Mirror neurons also allow us to go further than mimicking emotional responses, but they also allow us to learn from example. The way we perform activities well is by building up the myelin that wraps around the specific neural axons designated to perform that task.

Think about a marshmallow gun, in theory (I know this isn’t actually how they work) if every time you wrapped a piece of tape around the end of the of the pipe the marshmallow shot out faster you would want to wrap as many pieces of tape around the end as you could.

“Mirror Neurons allow us to live vicariously through players on the field.”

The same theory can apply to your brain, each action requires an axon (the pipe), and that axon needs myelin (tape) to wrap around it so that each time you perform that task it becomes faster and better.

So, if we watch someone take a shot, we mimic doing the action in our brain in a similar way we would if we went out and practiced taking shots on a goal through mirror neurons. Therefore, we are learning by example and warming our brain up by firing mirror neurons to then build myelin around neuron axons.

Basically, mirror neurons let us feel as though or actually imitate the actions we see. They let us understand how to do the same actions ourselves and understand the emotions behind the actions (Sternberg, 2017).

Not only are most soccer match viewers emotionally riding the rollercoaster of the ups and downs through each 90+ minutes games with the players; likely, they are also with other people who are viewing and feeling the exact same way. All that assuming you’re watching on a TV.

Think about the emotional atmosphere if you were with 40,000 other people all feeling the same things because of mirror neurons firing with each foul, goal, penalty kick, and counter-attack.

Furthermore, mirror neurons allow us to learn from watching games. Making each time a coach told you to go home and watch a game a real thing and not just extra busywork they were giving you.

Overall, the World Cup lets us feel and connect with emotions we could never experience ourselves firsthand. The World Cup also allows us to build up the next generation of Kevin De Bruyne’s and Luca Modric’s. All of this thanks to mirror neurons.

2014 FIFA World Cup.


Lamm, C., & Majdandžićab, J. The role of shared neural activations, mirror neurons, and morality in empathy – A critical comment. (2014). Neuroscience Research, 90. doi: 10.1016/2014.10.008

Sternberg, B. (2017). Emotional & social intelligence. Institute for Natural Resources, (2). 22-29.

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Olivia Schmitke
Olivia Schmitke is a recent graduate of Union University in Tennessee. Olivia is the Assistant Operations Coordinator for Southeast Psych. Ultimately though, she’s an aspiring psychologist, world traveler, soccer fanatic, and the newest member of the Avengers. Check out more of Olivia Schmitke’s content on Shrink Tank.


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