Your Brain On: The World Cup

Getty Images.

Are you a diehard U.S. soccer fanatic? Didn't think so. But for those with a mild case of World Cup fever, watching the games will light up areas of your brain in ways you won't believe. From the opening whistle to the victorious or crushing aftermath (thanks a lot Portugal, you jerks!), your mind and body react to watching a big-time sports event as though you're an active participant, not an idle bystander. You'll even burn calories, studies suggest.

Before The Match

As you look forward to the big game, your brain floods with 29 percent more testosterone, shows a study from Spain and the Netherlands. (Yes, women experience this T surge too, although their overall levels are lower than men's.) The more you care about the match's outcome, the more your testosterone levels rise.

Why? Believe it or not, it has to do with social status, says study coauthor Leander van der Meij, Ph.D., of Vrije University Amsterdam. Because you associate yourself with your team, their success or failure feels like a reflection of your own achievement and social standing. Even though you can't influence the result of the match, your brain and body are preparing you to defend your social status if your guys lose, van der Meij explains.

The First Half

While you sit on your couch or barstool, a big part of your brain is running and kicking alongside the players on the field, according to Italian research. In fact, about 20 percent of the neurons that fire in your noodle's motor cortex while you're playing sports also fire when you watch sports-as though a part of your brain is actually duplicating the players' movements.

Even more of these motor neurons fire if you have a lot of experience playing the sport you're watching, finds a similar study from Spain. So if you're a former high school or college soccer player, your brain is living even more of the on-screen action. The excitement of the game also sends your adrenaline levels soaring, which explains why you may feel your heart racing and sweat breaking out on your forehead, studies have found. Excitement hormones also dampen your appetite and increase your metabolism, shows research from the U.K. That could help you burn 100 calories or more while you watch the game.

The Second Half

All that excitement (and anxiety over your team's performance) leads to a short-term bump in cortisol-a hormone your body releases in response to stress. According to van der Meij, this again has to do with the way you associate your team's success with your sense of self. "The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis gets activated in reaction to a threat to the social-self, and consequently, cortisol is released," he says.

But while your body goes through a short bought of game-related stress, the distraction from your daily grind could help bust apart more serious forms of psychological distress. According to University of Alabama researchers, your stress levels remain dangerously high when your mind worries over or "rehearses" whatever it is that's causing your existential anxiety. But diverting activities like the World Cup draw your brain's attention away from your stress sources, and so give you a break from your real-world worries, the Bama researchers speculate.

Studies have also identified a brain-sports link that hints at something more primal: Your mind and body become more aroused while watching sports (or any exciting television content) if your day-to-day life is relatively boring. So, compared to a firefighter, someone with a mundane gig will experience a greater surge of arousal-related hormones while watching an exciting sports match, the Alabama researchers explain.

Why? Your brain and body crave excitement, and may react more strongly to exhilarating TV content if that thrill is absent from your typical day. (That may be one reason so many people love to watch live sports.)

After the Game

Watching an aggressive sport leaves you feeling aggressive and hostile yourself, shows a study from Canada. Blame the testosterone, cortisol, and other competition-related hormones your brain was pumping out during the match, their study suggests. (And keep an eye out for post-game bar brawls!)

And, whether your team won or lost, research from Tufts University shows your brain experiences an uptick in dopamine-a feel-good hormone associated with drug use and sex. The study authors can't say why the losers also receive this pleasurable chemical bump, but it could help explain why we all keep watching sports even though most teams are bound to come up short by season's end. In the long run, watching sports could even improve your brain function. University of Chicago researchers found that, among those who play or watch sports, increased activity in the brain's motor cortex improved the fans' and athlete's language skills.

Good luck keeping all this straight while you're brain is consumed by today's game!

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles