The Situationist

The Neuro-Situation of Wins and Losses

Posted by The Situationist Staff on October 10, 2011

From Montreal Gazette:

A new National Hockey League season is upon us, Major League Baseball playoffs are in full swing and the National Football League’s regular season has been in session for about a month.

As you fixate on your television, watching every move of your favourite athletes and longing for that great play or crucial win that can serve up a rush that can approach orgasm, consider this: New research from Yale University shows even more of your brain than previously thought physically reacts to something perceived as a win or a loss.

A new study, published in the journal Neuron, outlines experiments showing how most of the brain has heightened activity if one wins or loses a competition such as rock-paper-scissors.

It was a broader effect than what was known before to be a reaction of the central part of the brain in releasing dopamine when something good happens, creating a positive feeling in an individual. Conversely, past evidence has also shown this neurotransmitter is suppressed when an unwanted outcome occurs.

The study’s lead author, Timothy Vickery, a post-doctoral fellow at Yale’s psychology department, said it’s possible that the brain has a similar kind of engagement when its owner is watching sports.

“We didn’t look at that directly in this study, but it wouldn’t be very surprising to me if those sorts of second-hand experiences had the same influence, because you’re sort of identifying with your team, and a win for your team is a win for you,” he said.

Vickery said the high engagement sports fans feel when watching a competition likely comes from the previously known function of the basal ganglia, in the middle of the brain, sending out dopamine when a positive outcome is perceived.

It has its roots, he said, in evolutionary tendencies that favour people and animals that are able to make the right choices to improve chances for survival and create results — such as finding food — that induce dopamine-fuelled feelings of joy.

Vickery said the effect can be vicarious when watching other people participate in sports.

“I think it’s fair to say that, to the extent that you experience those wins and losses as your own, it would have a similar effect on your brain as taking your own actions,” he said.

By conducting MRIs on people while they competed against a computer in games such as rock-paper-scissors, the Yale study found that most parts of subjects’ brains, even beyond the basal ganglia, had physical reactions to both wins and losses.

By analyzing the brain as a whole, Vickery said the researchers could determine whether the individual was experiencing a win or a loss, based on subtle differences in the nature of the patterns. He said it is likely this broadly based brain reaction is somehow related to established theories concerning the reward-punishment function at the brain’s centre. The study, however, could not conclude that.

“My suspicion is that it’s not unrelated, that basically that signal gets sent out from the basal ganglia . . . and sort of filters out through the brain, but we don’t know for sure where it’s coming from. There’s still a lot of work to be done.”

More.

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