The Neuroscience of One Football Moment

Maybe you aren’t a big football fan, but it’s a big deal in our house.  A very big deal.  We’re Ravens’ fans, and on Thanksgiving, the Baltimore Ravens beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.  And there was this controversial step on the field by the Steelers’ coach.  (He’s the one in the black and yellow athletic jacket and baseball cap.)

Did Mike Tomlin try to trip Jacoby Jones?

The ensuing debate would do well to consider how our brains work.   For starters, everyone who complained that a flag should have been thrown – After all, this is illegal and the ref was right there?  How could he have missed it?  (The ref is just outside this picture.)  Well, the ref was focusing entirely on Jacoby Jones’ toes (he’s the one running with the football in the black jersey), specifically, did any part of his foot land out of bounds during his run.  The eyes may see just about everything, but the brain only registers what it is focused on.  I’m sure the ref is extremely well-trained and experienced, and his brain was doing exactly what was expected of it:  Watch for an out of bounds’ step.  Think there’s no way you would’ve missed it?  Think again.

Watch this video http://www.theinvisiblegorilla.com/gorilla_experiment.html, and follow the directions:  Count how many passes between players.  Now, did you see anything unusual?  Well, maybe you did, but that would be because you’re already primed by the title of the website, and by what you’ve already read here.  But most of us, with only the instruction to count passes, would miss the anomaly on the court.  Until it was pointed out to us and we’re told to watch for that.  This is a HUGE issue for police officers and juries and eye witnesses.  How could anyone miss that?  we think.  Welcome to our brains at work.

But what about what was going on in the Steelers’ coach’s brain?  Was this intentional, as all Ravens’ fans will insist, or was he unaware of where he was on the field until he caught himself on the jumbo-tron and quickly moved out of the way, as he insists (and probably all Steelers’ fans agree.)

Well, the debate goes deeper than conscious decision-making, which implies a carefully thought-out pre-meditated plan.  Instead, by its very nature, following one particular sports team lights up the ancient part of our brain that constantly determines the “us-ness” or the “them-ness” of others.  You can guess that your team is part of “Us.”  And the rival team?  O, yeah.  That’s “Them.”  And within milliseconds, our brains have made that determination and are now operating out of a “how can I protect me and mine, and hurt those other “thems” before they get me.”  You can call it instinct; that lets us (our prefrontal cortex) off the hook too much.  But we all have to be honest about how our brains sometimes get us into trouble; how our “reflexes” aren’t always appropriate; how stress brings out the schoolkid in all of us.  That’s what I saw in those replays, especially in how the coach laughed at this antic as he watched himself on the replay.  Should he be fined?  Well, for safety’s sake, probably yes.  Plus maybe it will help everyone to LITERALLY “think twice” about their behavior.  Because that’s how our brains learn – ie – rewire:  Through examples and stories of others, and through carrots and sticks.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, in spite of my commitment to compassion and living my faith that we are all one, I have some Monday Night Football to watch.

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One thought on “The Neuroscience of One Football Moment

  1. It’s big in our house too, and our team is the Seattle Seahawks. So GLAD your team beat the Steelers! We watched football all day Thanksgiving. As far as the coach stepping on the field–the entire team is a bunch of rule stretchers. I love every time they get beat. 🙂 Enjoy your Monday Night Football—-we will be!

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