Your Brain On Cubs—A Review

Your Brain on Cubs: Inside the Heads of Players and Fans (2008) Edited by Dan Gordon. Washington, DC: Dana Press

Cubs fans are perfect subjects for psychological study. We stick with our team despite 100 years of heartbreak. We rationalize with talk of curses. We analyze what it would take to have that perfect team who would make all our pennant dreams come true. Any book purporting to examine not only our fanatic brains, but also the inner workings of hitters and pitchers, should be a “natural” for us. As a die-hard Cubs fan and a cognitive psychologist, I thought this book would “touch all my bases”. Unfortunately, I was disappointed from both perspectives: much of the baseball in the book was not really about the Cubs and most of the science in the book was not about baseball.

The book contains seven chapters covering: the social-cognitive and neuroscience basis of fan loyalty; expertise and the brain; the neuroscience of hitting; the psychology of superstition; performance enhancing drugs; handedness; and the psychology of the euphoria of winning and the agony/depression of losing. These chapters vary in the degree to which they report actual research on baseball fans and/or players. Some seem to be pure speculation about how research in a particular field might apply to baseball. Others use research on other sports or the movements and processes that are part of baseball and try to extrapolate to the actual experience of playing or watching a game. Although most of the authors seem to be enthusiastic about baseball, and some even include moving personal stories about their connection to baseball and/or the Cubs, they vary in their ability to knit the psychological research and the game of baseball into a convincing presentation. Not all of the authors are trained psychologists, so some of the articles read more like magazine pieces than science. Other chapters read like a basic overview of someone’s specialty with a few baseball references inserted for this publication. Others seem to be stretching to find any real connection at all. The best chapters (e.g. Kelli Whitlock Burton and Hillary R. Rodman’s “It Isn’t Whether You Win or Lose, It’s Whether You Win: Agony and Ecstasy in the Brain”) integrate the experience of baseball throughout the discussion of the research and acknowledge when they are extrapolating (e.g., after describing parallels between fanship and religious faith including brain studies on religious subjects reciting psalms, they note “Ritual recitation of ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ has yet to be studied.”—LOL).

I must single out one chapter that I found rather troubling. Bennett Foddy’s analysis of performance enhancing drugs and baseball “Risks and Asterisks: Neurological Enhancements in Baseball” argues in favor of the use of performance enhancing drugs. After discussing the physiological effects (emphasizing the positive and underplaying the negative) of a variety of substances in what could serve as a how-to manual for getting high, Foddy provides an “ethical” analysis using an equation based solely on benefits to the players (e.g., there are no poor MLB players so everyone can afford to take drugs = home runs = $$) and benefits to the spectators (e.g., fans want entertainment = home runs = $$) leaving out any discussion of players as role models for little leaguers, the message sent to young people by the use of performance enhancing drugs, and how the drug use filters down to the minor leagues (where there certainly ARE poor players and not everyone is equally able to afford to take drugs). The fact that Foddy holds a fellowship in bioethics may explain something about the sorry state of medical bioethical analysis today.

By far the biggest problem with the book is actually an editorial issue: the reference style. Even a science book written for the “general reader,” as this book claims to be, needs to be clear about the difference between pure speculation and statements based on scientific research. For many of the statements in Your Brain on Cubs, this distinction is impossible to determine, primarily because of an editorial decision to put all the references in the back of the book. As a scientist, when I read a statement such as “There is sufficient evidence that people integrate their personal identities with their social identities.” I expect to see it followed by either an article citation or a footnote leading me to a specific citation. In this book, there are no such indications of which statements are backed by research; instead, the references for each chapter/article are listed at the back of the book in alphabetical order. Most of the articles do not provide enough information within the article itself (e.g., researcher names) to be able to link specific statements/claims to a particular reference on the list. In fact, I suspect that most of the chapters were written in the standard scientific style and then the references were removed.

Once I located the references buried at the back of the book, I discovered another problem: most of the references are not about baseball at all. Of the 142 references listed, only 18 were specifically about baseball, 13 about other sports, 5 about music; the remaining 106 references are general psychology or neuroscience references. Perhaps the research just does not exist, in which case perhaps sufficient justification for this book is also lacking.

Your Brain On Cubs neither diminished my love of the Cubs nor helped explain it. I recommend readers buy a ticket to a baseball game and spend their time there instead of reading this book.

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