When I’m not editing books and periodicals about the brain, I’m a violinist by avocation. On September 30, 2003, I attended my rehearsal with the Washington Conservatory Orchestra and missed seeing the Cubs defeat the Atlanta Braves in the first game of that year’s National League Division Series. The Cubs went on to win that series, three games to one.
Two weeks later, a night on which a Cubs victory would send the team to the World Series for the first time in 58 years, I made the same choice: to attend rehearsal and then hope to catch the last two innings of the ball game. No reason, I thought, to press my luck by skipping rehearsal this time; after all, the strategy had worked two weeks prior. I wouldn’t want to jinx them.
I somehow stayed focused at rehearsal, and my strategy seemed to be working again: afterward, as I drove to the Irish pub where my friends were watching the game, I listened on the radio as the Cubs took a 3–0 lead into the late innings. I panicked briefly when I couldn’t find a parking space, afraid that I wouldn’t be watching when the Cubs sealed the deal.
But the game wasn’t over when I raced into the bar. In fact, there was one out in the top of the 8th inning, with the Florida Marlins up to bat. The Cubs were five outs away from the Series.
Not sixty seconds after I started watching, Luis Castillo of the Marlins hit a pop foul into the front row in left field. The Cubs’ left fielder might have caught the ball for the inning’s second out, but a fan made a play on it instead. From there the inning and the series unraveled for the Cubs, along with our dreams of a World Series appearance and victory.
Fans blamed the man who had reached for the foul ball— and there’s more on him later in this book. But for a while, I felt as though I should have pretended there was no game at all—as though that would have allowed my team to cruise to victory. Clearly I’d changed their fortunes by showing up to watch.
Such is the life of a Cubs fan: As if a curse involving a billy goat weren’t enough, even the most rational among us are prone to believing that we somehow contributed to the team’s failures.
It was not until the following season, on a sun-soaked June afternoon at Wrigley Field, that I began to realize that the very existence of such a thing as sports fandom grows out of the way the brain works. What, in my brain, made me loyal and hopeful enough to come back despite disappointment that still seemed fresh? Why is Wrigley Field considered by so many people to be beautiful, relative to other ballparks? What was responsible for the rush I felt when the Cubs recorded the last out in what had become a dominating, 6–1 victory?
Other questions popped up over time: What part of the ballplayer’s brain makes him able to hit a pitch traveling at perhaps ninety-five miles per hour, coming from less than sixty feet away? How does a ballplayer develop superlative skill at a position and at the plate?
Admittedly, it took longer for me to consider my brain’s role in permitting my belief that I had jinxed the team on that October night. We do not like to admit our own irrationality, even if we share it with legions of fans who believe their team is cursed.
Perhaps, one day, that same superstition will allow us to believe that we contributed to our team’s triumph. But we Cubs fans know better than to hope for such a day.
From Chapter One
The Depths of Loyalty:
Exploring the brain of a die-hard fan
by Jordan Grafman
Given the complex situations and thinking that Cubs fans have had to engage in, it turns out that the frontal lobes are consistently activated in almost all circumstances involving a fan thinking about the team:
The overall hope for a World Series Champion on the North Side
Though some might point to the past century as evidence that this hope requires losing one’s mind, the hope in fact comes from a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex This brain region in humans is known to be important for planning, reasoning, social cognition, knowledge about the behavior of others, establishing a context, and similar higher-level cognitive processes The purpose of activation in this region would be to generate (obviously by analogy to other teams and situations) what the Cubs need to do to win the World Series, to retrieve knowledge about the fate of other teams that have won it, to inhibit the historical evidence related to the Cubs’ failure to go all the way, and to temper any unrealistic assumptions about winning with hopeful longer-term goals—if the past be a guide, the goals must be very, very long-term indeed
The enjoyment of sitting at Wrigley Field watching the Cubs play
Nostalgia about the intimacy of old baseball parks, social bonding with other fans watching or listening to the game, and encoding and predicting the sequence of events occurring on the day of the game (including aspects of the action itself) also activate the prefrontal cortex However, more posterior brain regions concerned with visual, auditory, and even tactile perception and the emotion-centered limbic system become activated when you feel the wind in your hair coming from the north and west, view the beautiful green of the vines adorning the outfield walls, inhale the smell of a ballpark hot dog, look upon the natural turf of the outfield, and sense that your behavior is mirroring that of the fans around you and even the fans on the rooftops of the apartment buildings beyond the outfield bleachers Your auditory cortex takes delight in hearing even the off-tune singing of “take Me Out to the Ballgame” by the guest of the Cubs during the seventh-inning stretch Your limbic system, responsible for your emotions, is attuned to your mood as you follow the downs and ups of the Cubs’ fortunes during the game, hopefully ending with a victory In that instance, the brain’s reward system, including the ventral brain stem and basal ganglia, pumps dopamine into your brain with a refinement that matches the experience of seeing the froth of a congratulatory beer at a neighborhood bar after the win (The beer’s effects in the brain involve the reward system described above, as well as the prefrontal cortex)
Sitting with friends at the game, hearing or discussing the game with the fans around you, listening to it on a radio or watching it on TV allow for bonding with others Such bonding activates the septum and the subgenual prefrontal cortex, which then releases chemicals such as oxytocin that signal the degree of pleasure of the bonding (a mother’s brain is pumping oxytocin as she bonds with her infant) for some people this bonding (such as the enjoyment of sitting in Wrigley) is powerful and brings a person back to the same situation and baseball park many times in the future, in search of a similarly pleasurable experience
Who am I?
The prefrontal cortex is also an essential brain region for mediating our notion of self for example, watching a baseball team play may activate memories of playing baseball in our youth Neuroscientists have identified so-called mirror neurons in our brain that are activated whether we are playing a sport or watching others play This mirror neuron brain system spans frontal and posterior brain regions It helps us integrate the enjoyment of playing the game with simple knowledge of the game and memories of our playing the game in our youth As Vittorio Gallese showed in a 2007 study, mirror neurons become activated when we watch a baseball team play Besides this implicit interplay between watching a sports team play and our own memories of whom we were (and are), the love of a sports team is powerful enough for some people to influence their habits and schedules and motivate the way they form relationships with friends, relatives, spouses, and children for the serious sports fan, this has obvious consequences: not everyone wants to devote a corner of the family room to a shrine for the team In extraordinary circumstances, a sports team can galvanize a nation, giving the population something to identify with in a way little else could achieve for example, a few years ago I was in Greece, lecturing at a neuropsychology summer school It so happened that the Greek national soccer team was competing for the European championship Clearly an underdog, they won the championship that summer The remarkable outpouring of happiness and emotion from the majority of Greeks, many of whom no doubt paid little attention to the team or the sport ordinarily, was particularly touching They were Greece, Greece had won a major championship, and the celebrations lasted throughout the night touching though it was, thanks to my mirror neurons, watching the celebrations made the Cubs fan in me a bit wistful.
The Cubs will always remain a part of their fans’ personal identity That occurs in a powerful symbolic way—the overwhelming majority of fans have never met a player, nor do we consider them friends We understand that they are businessmen, that different players represent the team at different times, under different owners whose business interests trump any sense of loyalty to the city But we ignore these counterfactuals in order to lay our symbolism on the team, dress them up with our accumulated identities, and wait for the transcendent moment they win the big one and our identities become magically transformed.