The brain circuits associated with love are activated when fans see their favorite clubs on the field.

Fans in a soccer stadium.

The most emblematic fountains of the country tremble when the designated dates of the football season arrive. In the capital, tens of thousands of fans rallied around the goddess Cibeles when Real Madrid won their 11th European Cup last May. Neptuno was overwhelmed by Atletico fans when the team was proclaimed champion of the League in 2014. And the modest fountain-lamppost of Canaletas almost could not with the crowd that celebrated the famous sextet of Barcelona in 2009, when the Catalan team won the League, the King’s Cup and the European Cup, the Spanish and European Super Cups, and the Club World Cup in the same year.

Anyone who has seen the euphoria of the fans in those moments cannot doubt the emotions they feel for the teams they support. The fans live for their clubs: they pay large amounts to subscribe each season, they coordinate their schedules so as not to miss a single game, they even travel thousands of kilometers to lift their heroes when they dispute championships in distant countries.

It is clear that they love their teams, but now there is scientific evidence that shows that they come to feel genuine love for the clubs they support. A new study from the University of Coimbra reveals that the brain circuits that are activated when a person falls in love also go into action in the brains of fans when they see their favorite teams on the football field.

Surprisingly, the same study – titled Tribal love: the neural correlates of passionate engagement among soccer fans and recently published in the magazine Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience– shows that in many cases these brain regions are activated more with the stimulus of football than with that of a romantic partner, which suggests that fans may feel more for their club than for their better half.

Resonances to measure passion

For three years, a team of neurologists from the Institute of Nuclear Sciences Applied to Health of the University in Coimbra investigated whether the emotions expressed by the fans – the explosions of joy when the club wins, the cries of frustration when the other scores, the cry when defeated – they have a neural base.

“We wanted to investigate the phenomenon of fans at a neurological level,” explains to EL ESPAÑOL the neurologist Miguel Castelo-Branco, one of the authors of the study and professor of biostatistics and biophysics at the University of Coimbra. “Everyone knows that football produces strong emotions. We wanted to measure their intensity ”.

To carry out the study, the researchers contacted the main fan associations of Porto FC –one of the best teams in Portugal– and Académica de Coimbra –which has one of the lowest rankings in the Portuguese League. They recruited 58 fans, all between the ages of 21 and 60 and of varied socioeconomic backgrounds. Only two women participated in the study, not because they were excluded, but for logistical reasons: “Few were part of these groups.”

To measure the fanaticism of the fans, a psychological questionnaire was used to determine the level of fans of the participants, who detailed the time they had been following the team they supported and other relevant data. The participants then underwent magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while watching compilation videos of the best and worst moments in their teams’ history, as well as videos of rival teams and teams for which they felt nothing in particular.

“We show Porto the glorious moment when Kelvin scored the decisive goal against Benfica in 2013, winning the League, but also images of some of the toughest defeats against that same rival. The idea was to provoke strong emotions, like those that one of Barça would feel when seeing Madrid score, and vice versa. To generate neutral reactions we put videos of teams from the Italian series B, clubs that they did not know and that did not stimulate them emotionally ”, indicates the main researcher.

The club outperforms the couple

As fans watched the images, the machines captured the reactions their brains registered to such a stimulus. When analyzing them, the researchers were surprised to discover that the brain areas that were activated were the same ones that are stimulated when someone feels romantic love.

“When they saw videos that generated strong emotions – especially those of great team triumphs – both the amygdala and the nucleus accumbens of the participants were activated,” explains the neurologist. “They are the areas of the brain linked to motivation and positive reward, the parts of the mind associated with love. The greater the participant’s hobby, the greater the activity recorded in this area ”.

The amygdala, the nucleus accumbens and other areas of the brain complex control, among other things, our sensation of pleasure. They do this through the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that produces feelings of joy and serves as positive reinforcement.

Food and sex release dopamine naturally, while substances such as cocaine, nicotine, and amphetamines influence the mechanisms that control the neurotransmitter to increase its effects. For fans, soccer seems to play a notable role in the circuits where this biomolecule is produced.

“The most surprising thing is that we detected that these areas of the brain were activated much more with the stimulus of soccer than with romantic love. Indeed, it suggests that they feel more for their clubs than for their partners ”, highlights Castelo-Branco.

tribal love

Castelo-Branco points out that the intensity of brain activity registered by fans, higher than that associated with romantic love, corresponds to tribal love, that which is linked to the strong feeling of belonging to a group.

“In the romantic we identify with another person, but the recipient of tribal love is the group,” reveals the neurologist. “It is an ancient emotion that leads us to feel loyalty enough to take up arms for the good of the group, of the tribe. Some species are individualistic, but the human being has this side that has allowed them to survive until now, making use of love and loyalty to the collective to protest against external threats ”.

“As early as the 1980s, the British zoologist and ethologist Desmond Morris argued that football clubs were the modern equivalent of ancestral tribes. Our study suggests that this is the case, and that fans register ancestral sensations closely linked to warmongering, which were fundamental in our evolution as a species ”.

The University of Coimbra study also reveals that human brains are conditioned to give more weight to good experiences over bad ones.

The hippocampus – the area related to emotional memory – was activated more when the participants saw images of great triumphs of their clubs and reacted less when videos of great defeats were broadcast. The neurologist Castelo-Branco considers that this dynamic could suggest that, for evolutionary reasons, our brains prefer positive motivation.

“The bad tends to be forgotten because it is not convenient for the individual or the group to live in a state of perpetual alteration. It makes sense to limit hatred at the evolutionary level, as the individual needs reassurance and a tribe that is always on the warpath is more likely to be eliminated. “

“Curiously, among the most fanatics we did not notice so much activity in this region. That suggests to us that they do end up holding a grudge in the long run, ”says the author of the work.

Boost the industry with ‘neuromarketing’

The research from the University of Coimbra is part of a larger study on the weight of emotions in consumption.

“If the tribal love of the fans is superior to the romantic love they feel, does this have an impact on the decisions they make?” Castelo-Branco wonders. “Would you rather go to see a Porto game or go to the cinema with your wife? Do you prefer to pay for a vacation with your wife, or for tickets to a decisive match? We are currently investigating that, through dilemmas that we are posing to the same participants of the original study.

Soon they will also launch another study with a purely economic approach, to determine and quantify whether emotion leads to irrational decisions when we spend money. ”We want to measure the sacrifice that fans are willing to make to go to see a Champions League game, for example ”, Relates the researcher.

The neurologist confesses that for him this latest investigation represents a fascinating mystery, as he is a great Porto fan and has come to contemplate doing crazy things to see the Portuguese National Team.

“I remember how much I wanted to see the Portuguese team play in the Euro 2000 semi-finals. I was lucky enough to get tickets at a reasonable price at the last minute, but I have no doubt that I would have paid a fortune for them if they had. required ”.

Castelo-Branco says that this research is part of the increasingly powerful world of neuromarketing, which relies on neural studies to formulate ambitious strategies to encourage consumption.

“The soccer sector is already a brutal source of income, but the reality is that it can be enhanced much more if you know how to exploit the consumer through their most basic emotions,” says the neurologist.

Undoubtedly there are many people in the sector who would like to know what is the largest sum that a fan is willing to pay to see their club play. Neurology represents a way to turn that side of the business into a science.