Hockey Night in Cranium: This is your Brain on Hockey

Let me take you back to Monday, April 21st, game 7 Boston vs. Montreal. I want to try and describe your cerebral activity through the day. Two caveats before proceeding: My doctoral supervisor always told me that I should speak about the things that I know, and not the things I am ignorant of. As I have never been a Bruins fans (sorry, Nick!) I won’t comment from a Bruin’s perspective. Also, as I have never been a female (despite what Nick thinks of me for refusing to become a Bruins fan), what follows is a description of a brain possessing an XY genotype.

You arrive at work at the normal time, but you are on edge. Your right cerebral cortex (the mathematical, logical part of your brain) is having a significant debate with your left cerebral cortex (which is more intuitive and emotional). Your right side has computed that the likelihood of the Bruins completing a comeback from being down 3 games to 1 is exceptionally remote. Yes, they have played like champions, but they have been playing above their heads for too many games, probability dictates that they can’t do it again. Your left cortex is screaming obscenities at the right; and points out that the Habs did it to the Bruins a mere three years ago, and so what goes around can come around. The debate is intense, the message from the right finds its way down to the hypothalamus, and is telling this structure to stay calm. The message from your left hemisphere, however, is louder and more powerful. It wins the debate, and so excites the hypothalamus. The excited hypothalamus activates the pituitary gland, which in turn excites the adrenal glands, causing the release of cortisol. The free-flowing cortisol energizes your body, preparing it for the battle to come, sugars get converted into energy, and fat stores get converted to sugars (hence doubling your energy reserves). The cortisol that reaches the brain inhibits your serotonergic systems, thereby making you more anxious and quarrelsome. When your boss asks if you have finished the quarterly reports, you comment tersely on the unfairness of it all: Why is it that some members of the Canadiens are paid millions of dollars for NOT scoring goals, and yet you are expected to produce reports every 3 months or so, playoffs or no playoffs, for significantly less then a 6-figure (never mind a 7-figure) salary? Your right hemisphere tries to comment on how illogical this belief is, but to no avail. The boss is an asshole, plain and simple. This latest event is simply the smoking gun providing the final bit of evidence.

The hypothalamus has also aroused your brainstem and your locus coeruleus. The excited brainstem activates your sympathetic nervous system, which further prepares you for the battle to come. Your heart rate and blood-pressure increase, you begin to sweat more profusely, and your digestive tract is turned off. You have no need for food (the circulating sugars in your blood are providing more then enough energy). The activated locus coeruleus augments (in part) your level of vigilance. It is making you anxious, looking for potential threats. You need some social support, so you tune your radio to the Team 990, and are pleased when Elliot, Dennis, Shawn, Tony and Mitch, all fellow Montrealers, make a strong case for a Habs victory. You avoid PJ, he might be a native Montrealer, but in reality is a turn-coat Beantown admirer who will have nothing good to say about the outcome of the game. In fact, if it comes to a choice of listening to your boss or to PJ, you’d pick the boss. Your hippocampus reminds you that Picard’s show will only be aired after the game; another small mercy, given that he is a native Bostonian, and will no doubt be decidedly biased for the Bruins. Your right hemisphere begins to question whether logic and reason will show its face at all during the day.

Because you are so vigilant and focused, the day passes slowly. On the bus-ride home you become frustrated when the driver stops and waits for an elderly gentleman to board. Your GABA-ergic systems are doing their best to keep you from getting overly frustrated, but you are pleased when your stop finally comes into view.

You burst into the house, announce authoritatively to your wife that you are not hungry, aggressively to your children that they had better be quiet as of 7:00 PM, and try to make yourself as comfortable as possible in front of the basement TV. At 7:03 you turn on the TV, only to be welcomed by the dulcet tones of Bob Cole. Your parietal cortex has already associated Mr. Cole’s vocals with everything that is Torontonian, and it has also created a second-order association between everything Torontonian and an uncontrollable sense of revulsion. So, you flip the TV over to the Reseau des Sports; Pierre Houde and Yvon Pednault may use some words that your Wernicke’s area (which recognizes language) may not be able to decipher, but at least you can pick up the hidden meanings in their emotional expressions.

The national anthems are sung (as your impatience grows). Your prefrontal cortex, the seat of executive function that allows you to plan your next moves, execute them, and attend to the outcomes, is in optimum drive. Catherine Zeta-Jones could be lying naked in front of your plasma TV, and your single response would be to tell her to not to block the screen, because it is imperative to know whether Tomas Plekanec is going to win that crucial face-off in the defensive zone.

Two hundred and one seconds into the game, Mike Komisaruk throws a softie towards the Bruins net; it gets deflected and eludes a very good Tim Thomas. Your meso-limbic dopamine system goes into high gear, this is accompanied by a massive release of endogenous opiates; the combination of dopamine and endorphins puts you into a state of elation and joy normally experienced only in the bedroom. The joy is short-lived, however, as those pesky Bruins mount a concerted counter-offensive, and take the play to the Habs. Again, your right cerebral cortex tries to unwind the mystery of how a 20 year old rookie goaltender can appear to be so calm and composed in the face of the onslaught. Your left hemisphere tells you to stop over-analyzing the situation, and just be happy that the Gods have looked kindly upon “nos glorieux”. Your right hemisphere concludes that the situation is hopeless, logic is not welcome in the realm of the sports fanatic, and decides to take the rest of the night off.

The first period ends, your prefrontal cortex relaxes enough for your brain-stem to send the message that it might be a good idea to head up to the washroom before you have an accident that you haven’t had since you were 4 years old. As you exit, your wife dares to ask if you remembered to pay the Hydro bill that was due. For a brief moment you wonder if you are becoming delusional, you never before noticed the physical and character similarities shared by your wife and your boss. Your prefrontal cortex kick back in, you need to get refocused on the hockey game. You tersely inform your wife that “Hydro Quebec would not dare to shut down electrical services in Quebec during a hockey game, in the same way that it won’t shut down the heating in the dead of winter. So, the bill can wait till tomorrow…” Your right cortex immediately identifies the logical inconsistencies in this statement, and is grateful that it already made the decision to take the rest of the night off.

The second period is less tense then the first. The rapidity of your eye movements across your TV screen are sent to your visual cortex, this information is passed back through your thalamus and to the temporal cortex, which interprets thus: faster eye movements mean the Habs are (finally) skating. Although it takes 10 minutes and 45 seconds before Mark Streit pots a beauty that gives the Habs a two-goal advantage, you knew all along that it was coming. Andrei Kostitsyn adds another less then 5 minutes later. Bathed in the sea of dopamine and endorphins, your brain sends out signals to begin the process of shutting down the stress response: Your cortisol levels slowly begin to fall, heart rate and blood pressure fall, and you can now put down that towel you were using to wipe your forehead.

But there is one final complication. The majority of the first 10 minutes of the third period is defined by a least one Habs player sitting in the penalty box. Your amygdala, which responds to threat, jumps into action, and you begin to think seriously about conspiracy: The refs are mere peons of the Toronto elite, which is conspiring to do everything in its power to prevent Montreal from attaining the silver anniversary Stanley Cup. Fortunately, Bryan and Steve, Tom and Maxime, and the entire defensive crew do an impeccable job of responding to the threat, and you relax. Two more late period goals are simply icing on the cake.

After the post-game debriefing you head up to bed. You body is exhausted, your muscles are fatigued and cramped; but your mind is still racing, fueled by the residual dopamine, noradrenalin and cortisol that you have not had sufficient time to metabolize. And it is only 10 o’clock. You look at your wife and wonder how you could have ever thought she looks anything like your boss; instead you marvel at the resemblance to Catherine Zeta-Jones. You tap her on the shoulder, smile, and wink romantically. The non-verbal message from her facial expression informs your left hemisphere that you have about as good a chance for an amorous ending to the evening as you do winning the 6/49 lottery without buying a ticket. You don’t even need the right hemisphere to come to that conclusion!

So, you peck her on the cheek, wish her good-night, roll over and start anticipating round 2. Rangers or Flyers? Who cares? Your brain may have difficulty fully assimilating the concepts of destiny and dynasty, but your heart doesn’t.

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Posted in Brain, Human.

Posted on 29 Apr 2008

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2 comments to Hockey Night in Cranium: This is your Brain on Hockey

  1. Cam Zacchia
    On Apr 30th 2008 at 14:39

    Billiant post, Joe.
    Perhaps in your next post, you could explain what goes on in the brain of Don Cherry.

  2. jacques
    On May 6th 2008 at 11:45

    As you know, I do no sports, what no sports or even have an interest in sports, but I got really exited reading your blog ! Now about Catherine-Zita Jones…….