What is the effect of watching football on your body and brain
It’s Super Bowl weekend — a time when friends and family gather around televisions all over the country to cheer on their favorite football team (and nosh on some game-day snacks). Inevitably, there will be fans in attendance who get a little rowdy: screaming, jumping up and down, cheering.
I’m one of them. I’m the type of fan who gets really into the games when one of my favorite teams is playing. I become uncharacteristically vocal, screaming things (sometimes obscenities) that almost definitely annoy my neighbors and may even freak them out a little bit. I get nervous. I throw stuff. I do superstitious things I inherently know won’t actually influence the game’s outcome — but I do them anyway, just in case.
Sometimes I’m very happy with the results of a game, and other times I’m downright despondent and angry. And pretty much any time I experience extreme emotion, those emotions manifest in my body. I’ll admit that I have broken a sweat many-a-time during a close game, just like I do when I’m about to give a presentation or meet someone for a first date.
And considering the bars and living rooms packed with rowdy spectators and the stadium filled to the brim with decked-out fans on Super Bowl Sunday, it’s clear I am not alone.
So why exactly does watching the sport evoke such intense sensations? Here are some of the things happening in our brain (and our bodies) when we tune into the game.
MIRROR NEURONS MAKE YOU FEEL LIKE PART OF THE TEAM
One of my favorite things to mess with my friends about while we’re watching football is how they seem to genuinely believe that as fans, they are one with the team — and habitually refer to their favorite teams as “We.”
“We really need to pick it up on defense out there,” or, “I can’t believe we’re going to pull this off!”
Yeah, Greg. Sure. You’re really playing a large role in the outcome of this game.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t genuinely feel to them like they are.
According to David Ezell, licensed professional counselor and clinical director and CEO of therapy provider Darien Wellness, adult humans have specialized neurons in their brains called mirror neurons that allow us to understand points of view outside of our own. These neurons enable us to put ourselves in another person’s shoes and imagine what they are going through in a particular moment.
“These feelings are magnified when we are watching a football team or player we are fans of because we ‘know’ them,” says Ezell. “When we see them on the field we are experiencing a portion of the feelings they are having because our mirror neurons are at work.”
Thankfully, we can’t actually feel the precise and likely painful sensation of what it must be like to get crushed on a kick return or sacked right when you’re about to make a throw, but mirror neurons do allow us to experience a game to some degree as if we were actually there and participating in it.
CHEMICALS AFFECT YOUR OVERALL MOOD
If you’ve ever watched a game with any real level of interest, especially a particularly close or intense one, you’ve probably felt better following a win than you have felt in the wake of a loss.
This has something to do with neurotransmitters, chemicals that your brain produces to regulate your mood. Hormones can play a role, as well.
When your team loses, your brain produces cortisol, a hormone that your body releases when you’re under stress.
According to Dr. Richard Shuster, clinical psychologist and host of The Daily Helping podcast, when your team wins or is playing well, your brain starts releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is directly involved in regulating the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.