PreFrontal Nudity

The brain exposed

Sex, Dopamine and the World Cup

Why soccer is boring ... or not

            Sitting in a crowded bar at noon on a Sunday, on the edge of my seat watching the U.S. play Portugal, I remember the ball being cleared out past the penalty box to midfielder Jermaine Jones. He seemed way too far to take a shot. As he took his first touch, the guy next to me muttered, “Don’t,” willing him to pass it for someone else to make a better shot. But he unleashed a powerfully curving ball that burst into the side netting. It happened so fast the goalkeeper didn’t even react, just stood still watching it happen. And the whole place erupted in cheers.

            Watching soccer is very different from almost any other sport. And being engrossed in the World Cup, it’s amazing to me how so many people (i.e., Americans) find it boring. This got me thinking about how the brain responds to and creates pleasurable experiences. No, I don’t think people who don’t like soccer are inferior, but there is a neuroscience explanation for why many people just don’t get what’s the big deal.

 

           Everything that’s pleasurable in life releases dopamine in the nucleus accumbens: sex, chocolate, a good book. Interestingly, when dopamine gets released your brain tries to remember the events that led up to it, so that you can get it again, or at least predict it. And then your brain starts releasing dopamine for those predictive cues in anticipation of the future pleasurable experience. For example, because sex releases dopamine, your brain learns certain cues predict it, like kissing in the dark, or climbing into bed with someone. So your brain releases dopamine at each of those cues, and then those cues become pleasurable in and of themselves. Even sitting on a couch doing nothing can be pleasurable, provided your hot date has just invited you into her apartment. It’s not that sex is imminent, or even certain, but the potential for it is what releases dopamine and increases pleasure.

            So how does this relate to soccer? Well soccer is like sitting on the couch doing nothing while your hot date slips into something more comfortable. Something amazing might happen at any moment. But if you couldn’t read all the cues suggesting what was about to happen, then you might not feel any excitement at all. After all, you are just sitting on a couch doing nothing.

           Goals are a rare occurrence, but extremely exciting (like sex). When your country scores a goal, your brain releases dopamine. And it starts remembering the events that led up to the big dopamine release. People who’ve watched a lot of soccer know that anything can happen at almost any moment. Any missed clearance can be the difference in the game. Or beating the defender one-on-one at the right time, or a perfectly placed corner-kick. All of these are cues to the soccer expert that something amazing might be about to happen, and thus their brain releases dopamine and they enjoy it.

           The same is not true of people who don’t watch much soccer. They don’t have enough soccer experience to read the cues, so their brains don’t release dopamine for all these little situations. They’re just waiting for a goal, and those rarely–and sometimes never–happen. So yes, for them, soccer is boring.

            On top of that, even if a goal happens it might not be an exciting one–like the ball just bounced off some guy’s knee and rolled slowly across the line. But the experienced soccer fan knows that any goal, no matter how lame, allows you to anticipate the excitement of winning the game, and asserting your dominance over another country, and all that fun stuff. So even “bad” goals are cues to that reward and release large amounts of dopamine.

            Soccer is like a seduction, each moment filled with anticipation that may or may not come to fruition. Perhaps it’s an acquired taste, like coffee, but once you get hooked it’s oh so sweet.

 

If you liked this post:

Click here to be notified of new PreFrontal Nudity posts.

Or become a fan of PreFrontalNudity on Facebook

Alex Korb, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher at UCLA and scientific consultant for BrainSonix Inc. 

more...

Subscribe to PreFrontal Nudity

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.