21 February 2011

Are sports fans just more primitive?

Wray Herbert, at The HuffingtonPost, describes what happens in the brain when sports fans see a player from a team they hate make a mistake.

Whether it was the joy of a favored player's home run or the joy of a rival's strikeout, the fans' brains lit up in the same spot -- the ventral striatum. This region is associated with the subjective experience of pleasure, and indeed the fans described both personal victory and schadenfreude as pleasurable. What's interesting -- and new -- here is that these were the brains of fans, not the players themselves: The brain's pleasure centers are known to fire up over a competitor's personal victory, but here they were showing the identical response on behalf of a team, a group.

From here, the Herbert follows this line of thought straight to evolutionary explanations:

Pleasure over another's misfortune may be an ancient and evolved aspect of group identity, so it's understandable even if it's unbecoming. But the link between schadenfreude and extremely aggressive thoughts about "them" is worrisome, since many group rivalries are far more emotional and perilous than a day on the diamond -- even if that diamond is at Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium. Indeed, that natural tendency may be a curse more consequential and enduring than the "Curse of the Bambino."

In recent years, such psychological research has become commonplace and merited publication in prestigous organs like Science.In an article entitled "When Your Gain Is My Pain and Your Pain Is My Gain: Neural Correlates of Envy and Schadenfreude" Takahashi et. al. demonstrated with fMRI that an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex became activated when people feel envy for another's successes. The corrolary, however, was that they also felt joy when misfortunate happened to the same person, and that corresponded to activation of the ventral striatum.

What to make of studies like these? There are so many tempting historical quips: Spurzheim rejoiced at Gall's disappointments comes to mind. But, of course, the serious problem here is not neo-phrenology, but rather how psychologists extend these insights from a circumscribed population to the population writ large. And don't think that they don't!

But what does this mean for us? What if, for example, you don't feel schadenfreude at all. The first time I'd even heard the expression was at a viewing of the off-broadway show "Avenue Q". (As an aside, I suspect that the word really entered English mainstream parlance through that politically conservative show.)

"Schadenfreude" as measured by Google Ngram Viewer. Usage increases after 1980.

Obviously many native-English speakers had felt emotions like envy and jealosy before and perhaps they had even experienced happiness - and how sad for them! - at the misfortunes of others. But that is a far cry from claiming either a) that we all experience these emotions, or b) that only certain groups of us experience these emotions. Yet ultimately that is the conceit studies like the above force us to assume: either the phenomenon they describe are ubiquitous throughout all populations or they are more strongly held by some groups. Contemplate all of the ugly possibilities both scenarios create (or just read this article by George Lakoff)! Reducing people to their neurobiology is neither scientifically sound nor politically smart. And the sad part is the whole project can be pithily answer with two questions: "what's an emotion anyway?" and "are humans only their brains?" But hell, who care's about questions like those anyway when we've got fMRI images that tell us everything we need to know.

Rarely do I find myself in agreement with Fukuyama - but he's right on this one. Check out:

Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution

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