As I write this, the perennial "Lovable Losers" of baseball, the Chicago Cubs, have the best record in either the National or the American League, and have been comfortably ensconced at or near the top for much of the season so far. Cubs fans are noted for their loyalty and hardiness in the face of bad luck; how would a great season (or a possible World Series win) change the nature of Cubs fanhood? More specifically, what does neuroscience have to tell us about the brains of fans and how they are affected by their affiliation with a particular team?
Your Brain on Cubs addresses topics in neuroscience as seen through the lens of baseball. Consisting of seven chapters, each written by a different author or set of authors, the book covers subjects like how a batter can possibly do the quick mental processing necessary to hit a ball, the roles of nature and nurture in athletic skill, what brain systems are important in the emotional life of sports fans, the use of neuro-enhancers by baseball players, and the role of superstition in sports. The essays illustrate well the capacity of baseball fans to connect their sport of choice with other fundamental aspects of life, linking baseball with religion, identity, happiness, and how we learn. Don't be put off by the title: You don't have to be a Cubs fan to find plenty of interesting material here.
The essays often weave personal anecdotes agreeably into the fabric of the science being presented, and overall the book is an enjoyable read. It's unavoidably episodic, but it's well structured and presents a fairly cohesive whole, bracketed by sections describing Cubs fanhood and containing a balance of information about players' and fans' brains. Each chapter can be read more or less independently, which is nice for browsing or focusing on a particular topic (or perhaps sharing specific chapters with the baffled non-fan in your life who wants to know what gets into you every October).
Several chapters consider players' brains. One explores the neuroscience of hitting, dealing relatively briefly with the mechanics of muscle response and then dissecting the mental duel between pitcher and hitter that is one of the great fascinations of the game. Another chapter delves into the role of the brain in developing physical expertise, including a look at the importance of motivation and the contribution of genes. (The conclusion, as you would expect, is that baseball and genes are both far too complex for there to be a simple formula relating the two.) A chapter on handedness investigates the superior performance of left-handed batters, and in the process gives an engaging overview of what we know so far about handedness and the brain.
Other chapters look at fans' brains, exploring the ups and downs of following a sport and looking at topics like emotional resilience, delayed gratification, depression, and self esteem. The opening chapter describes the social psychology and neuroscience that underlie the experience of rooting for your team. Loyalty and group identity are both important, and the cognitive adjustments required to deal with the inevitable losses and setbacks involved in following any team may well carry over into other areas of life. The closing chapter of the book looks into the brain science and biochemistry behind the thrill or agony of watching your team win or lose. Of all the chapters, this one struck me as the one that could most easily be spun into a whole book, covering as it did such disparate factors as personality, the physiology of vicarious emotional experience, and the elusive but vital experience of hope.
My favorite chapter looked at the many superstitions practiced by both fans and players. I don't believe my behavior can in any way influence the outcome of a baseball game in a distant city, but I have to admit that I'd feel mildly uncomfortable if I didn't wear my lucky Diamondbacks t-shirt during an important game. Players may engage in superstitious rituals to gain a feeling of control over a situation where much is unpredictable. (The control may be illusory, but the confidence it engenders could be helpful anyway.) Fans who follow their own rituals may be seeing structure and connections where none exist, which is basically an overreaction in the brain systems that seek pattern and order, an essential element of human cognition. Some religious behavior may spring from the same roots in human thought.
Possibly the meatiest chapter in the book deals with another facet of baseball that is rooted deep in human nature, and has also been much in the news recently: the use of performance-enhancing drugs. The chapter describes various classes of performance enhancers (stimulants, anti-anxiety drugs, steroids) and how they work. In an effort to dissect what is good for the sport, the chapter also analyzes their benefits and disadvantages from the viewpoint of both fans and players, finding that what is good for one is not necessarily good for the other. This complication is only one of several that the chapter addresses regarding the ethical use of performance enhancers in sports in general and baseball in particular; the author concludes that the line between legitimate use and abuse is often fuzzy. The analysis of benefits to fans and players raises questions at the heart of why we play or watch sports, and what human performance should be in an age when we can tinker more effectively with our bodies and minds. There are no easy answers, but the chapter gives a good brain-centered examination of the topic.
Yogi Berra, a former player and manager, famously said of baseball that "Ninety percent of this game is half mental." This book gives an enjoyable tour through some of the mental factors that make the game so pleasurable, frustrating, and ultimately rewarding.
© 2008 Mary Hrovat
Mary Hrovat is a freelance science writer; she has written about science and information technology for Indiana University's Research & Creative Activity magazine, Indiana Alumni Magazine, and Discovery Online. She also posts news items, book reviews, and articles on the Thinking Meat Project, which deals with brain science, psychology, human evolution, and related topics.