Why Do People Obsess Over Sports?

Your heart races and your cheeks begin to
flush; as you anticipate the surge of energy this win will bring, you move to the edge
of your seat – you can’t get enough! So why are we so passionately involved or obsessed
with sports? Hormones control the way we feel and are stimulated
by every action we take. Hugging a friend releases oxytocin making you feel calm, while
cramming for an exam releases cortisol leading to irritability – but also alertness. Simply
watching sports stimulates hormone levels as well. Testosterone in particular is a hormone
linked to dominance and social interaction, but also increases brain power, spatial awareness
and muscle growth. And scientists have found that after watching your team win, levels
of testosterone skyrocket, especially compared to experiencing a loss. Funnily enough, this
has even been documented in politics: during the 2008 US election, males who voted for
Obama were found to have much higher levels of testosterone after he won, than those who
voted for McCain. When your favourite athlete takes home the
gold, a surge of dopamine is also released. This biological rush activates pleasure centres
in the brain while increasing memory and learning. This increased memory helps explain why some
people continue to watch sports – they’re looking to recreate the physiological excitement
they can’t seem to forget. The brain also contains cells called Mirror
Neurons which are not only activated when completing an action, but also when viewing
it, or even hearing it. Certain mirror neurons will be activated when throwing a ball, seeing
someone throw a ball, or even hearing the word ‘ball’. It’s the reason we can ‘put ourselves
in another’s shoes, and why we experience a similar emotional and physical reaction
to somebody else winning. In fact, scientists monitoring both athletes and spectators see
the same parts of the brain activated – as if the viewer were playing the game. From
an evolutionary perspective, this allows us to understand the mental states of others
and interpret their actions and intentions, as well as empathize with them. It also helps
to explain why we find such pleasure and excitement in seeing our favourite team or athlete become
a champion. Curiously, scientists have found that some
people have problems with this mirror neuron system. This renders them unable to empathize with
others, leading to some social disorders. At the extreme ends, serial killers have been
found to lack this mirror neuron system. Science says, our obsession with sports may
be a great example of our adapted hormonal and neuronal systems at work, keeping us connected
as the human race… while watching humans race. Don’t forget: we have a new video out every day during the Olympics! But if you can’t wait, head to cbc.ca/olympics/ScienceSays for more. Keep asking those burning questions with the hashtag ScienceSays and subscribe for more awesome science videos!

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