The Playing Field

Sport and culture through the lens of science

The Neurochemistry of Superstition

Could superstition be making athletes better athletes?


Superstition has been all the rage as of late.

In the past few weeks, the Christian Science Monitor ran a story about Chinese superstition and the beginning of the Olympics. This was followed by Forbes's 13 famous sports superstitions in pictures and a Yahoo Sports article about 13 "Super Sports Superstition," though, oddly the Curse of the Bambino (caused by the trading of Babe Ruth before the 1920 season) still ranks number one despite Boston's recent flurry of World Series wins.

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And then the floodgates opened. Since then everyone from NewsOK.com, the online arm of the Okalahoman, to the Middlebury College Student Weekly has chimed in on the topic.

My personal favorite, at least when it comes to ominous outputs, is the black cat that ran across the New York Shea stadium while the Cubs were on the field during the 1969 pennant race. The Cubs were the serious favorites, but the cat ran onto the field and the Mets won the game, the pennant, and the World Series.

Other superstitions are of a more personal nature. Frank Viola, the three time MLB all-star and Cy Young winner, kicks up dirt on the mound exactly four times between innings (three times if fours aren't working); Turk Wendell, a former relief pitcher, liked to brush his teeth and chew licorice between innings; Wade Boggs was known as "Chicken Man" because he ate chicken before every game (he would also start wind sprints exactly 16 minutes before each game). Anyway, this list goes on.

Recently sports psychologist Dr. Robert Lustig (who, for reasons I can't quite figure, seems to refer to himself in the third person on his website) chimed in and mentioned that "superstition creates confidence inside a player or coach."

And while Lustig doesn't seem to know why this happens, there is, as it turns out, all sorts of tantalizing proof for the accuracy of his theory.

In 2002, Swiss neurologist Peter Brugger decided to see if people with a proclivity towards believing in the paranormal—towards a belief in such things as spirits and synchronicity and surfing could create real magic—had better pattern recognition skills than skeptics.

To test this idea, Brugger took twenty true-believers (people who believed in things like gods and ghosts and conspiracies) and twenty non-believers and showed everyone a series of slides. All of the slides were of people's faces. Some of the pictures had been expertly scrambled—a nose from person A; an ear from person B; a cheek from person C—while other were actual, unadjusted, real faces. Across the boards the true believers were much more likely to mistake a scrambled face for a real one than the skeptics.

Brugger then gave all of his participants a Parkinson's drug called L-Dopa which increased the levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the reward portion of the brain's need/reward system. It's a chemical that produces the sensation of pleasure that accompanies the accomplishment of a goal. One of the reasons people find cocaine so addictive is because it causes the brain to flood itself with dopamine-the very drug evolution created to get us to do the things that we need to do to survive.

The slide show was then repeated with a fresh set of faces. Under the influence of dopamine both groups were much more likely to call scrambled faces real, but the skeptics significantly more so. This means that those of us with more dopamine running around our brains are more likely to notice patterns where others see none and, by extension, those of us who notice such patterns will most likely try to ascribe some semblance of meaning to such things, even if that semblance of meaning is more than a little detached from what we think of as the rational world.

Brugger was starting to suspect he had found one of the neurochemical mechanisms for a spiritual belief, but one experiment does not make a theory. His notion got a further boost when NIH geneticist Dean Hamer and other researchers started looking for a gene that encoded for these same spiritual traits. Their search is thoroughly and wonderfully delineated in Hamer's book The God Gene. The end result of which is the discovery of VMAT2.

VMAT2 is a gene that regulates the flow of serotonin, adrenaline, norepinephrine, and, perhaps most importantly, dopamine in the brain. What they found was that those of us with the specific variation of the VMAT2 gene that ups the brain's production of these same chemicals are also the people who score highest on the psychological tests for spirituality.

But what makes all of this especially relevant to sports stars is that all of the aforementioned neurochemicals do not just regulate spirituality and superstition, but athletic performance as well. Dopamine and norepinephrine are the body's two main performance enhancing chemicals, serotonin is a mood booster and it's been long known that there is a direct correlation between positive moods and superior athletic performance. Adrenaline, meanwhile, governs the fight of flight syndrome and can definitely boost performance as well.

Even more curious is that all of these neurochemicals (except adrenaline) have been also directly linked to flow states, what athletes often speak of as "in the zone," and experience so powerful that recently Temple University sports psychologist Michael Sachs told me "athletic abilities are so elevated by the experience that just about any championship level, gold medal peak performance has a flow state at its core."

The point here is that those who play sports and are superstitious most likely have more of these performance-enhancing neurochemicals floating around their system and those neurochemicals definitely help them be better athletes. As far as the superstitions themselves—well, let's just say some more research needs to be done on that topic.

Steven Kotler is an author and journalist. His most recent works include: Abundance, A Small Furry Prayer  and West of Jesus.

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