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Mirror Neurons: Root of Sports Fandom and Humanity

 by Bennett Gordon

Tags: science, empathy, humanity, psychology, Science Blogs, ,

FansSitting in front of a television, thousands of miles away from the action, a true sports fan will be emotionally, physically, and psychologically invested in the game. Hearts racing, palms sweating, fans yell at their TVs, pleading for a win. In my mind, this has an immeasurable effect on the game. In reality, Jonah Lehrer on the Seed blogs attributes the actions to mirror neurons. 

These recently discovered brain cells “collapse the distinction between seeing and doing,” Lehrer writes, allowing humans to internalize the actions of others. Mirror neurons fire when humans perform actions, and also when humans see other people taking actions. So when Paul Pierce was beaming on the sidelines in the final minutes of the Lakers-Celtics series this week, the mirror neurons of every Boston fan were firing wildly.

The cells also have a role to play in empathy, according to Bruce Grierson writing for the journal In Character. Empathy is the very denominator of what it means to be human,” according to Grierson, and is triggered in some way by mirror neurons. Those neurons, however, are greatly affected by context. Grierson writes, “it’s the context that will determine to what degree the cognitive apparatus suppresses the limbic response.” In other words, if you see your team score a basket, it will call up a very different physiological response than when you see the opposing team score one. After all, we’re only human.

Image by Todd Huffman, licensed under Creative Commons.