Food & Culture

What the World Cup Does to Your Brain

The 2018 World Cup has all come down to Croatia versus France, and it's already set up to be a record-breaking match. Deadline reports that no fewer than 3.4 billion people are expected to tune in to the match, despite the fact that, last time we checked, Croatia and France made up considerably less than 46 percent of the world's population. So what's behind this football (or make that soccer, depending on your location) mania? The answer lies in the structures of your brain.

Crowd Control

Even if you aren't a soccer fan specifically, you almost certainly know somebody who is obsessed with the game this weekend. But have you ever wondered why? There are a lot of reasons for fandom, and they go far beyond the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. In a lot of ways, sports fandom is written right into our brains.

One of the main stereotypes about soccer fans is that they're, well, hooligans. You know — starting fights with fans of the other team, flipping cars when they win, flipping buses when they lose, and generally acting like a herd of out-of-control animals. There's a reason that when you get a huge group of passionate, like-minded people together, they'll start to exhibit less self-control, poorer judgment, and increased impulsivity guided by the mood of the group. It's called deindividuation, and it's what happens when an overpowering collective consciousness overtakes the individual minds of a large group.

So maybe deindividuation and pack mentality explain the worst-of-the-worst when it comes to sports fandom around the world. But other studies show that even among more sober-minded sports fans, their personal preferences can completely alter the way they experience a game. In one 1954 study, researchers showed students from Dartmouth and Princeton a particularly brutal football game between the two colleges. A Princeton player was the first to be carried off the field, and a Dartmouth player broke his leg later on. When the students were asked about it, however, those from Dartmouth were much more likely to suggest that both sides had become violent at the same time — or even that Princeton had started it.

This Is Your Brain on Soccer

So maybe massive, globe-spanning sports events have more of an effect on our social activity than we might want to admit. But what's almost more incredible is the physical effect it has on our brains and bodies. Mirror neurons are neurons in your brain that reflect the activities of people you are watching — when you see somebody racing down the pitch to score a goal, your brain races right along with them. As you might expect, that vicarious thrill has an effect on the body — stress hormones and testosterone have both been found to increase in fans who only watched their team playing, almost as if they had been the ones on the field.

So that explains the rush you feel when your team wins. But be careful — there's a dark side. After the 2006 World Cup in Munich, a group of researchers looked back at what was going on in the city's cardiology departments. During the tournament, Munich-area hospitals recorded 4,279 heart cases — 3.26 times as many men as normal, and 1.82 times as many women. The correlation was clear: The games might be thrilling, but all those thrills take a toll.

The World Cup, and professional soccer in general, have a massive effect on the world — bigger than you might expect. Check out "Soccernomics" and find out why the San Francisco Chronicle called it "the most intelligent book ever written about soccer." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like.  If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

7 Psychology Lessons You Accidentally Learn Watching Sports

Written by Reuben Westmaas July 11, 2014

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