Miami Heat V San Antonio Spurs 618133

Miami Heat Playoff Win, the Fans, and the Dance of Hormones

2013 NBA Finals - Game SixThe Miami Heat’s American Airlines Arena was packed with thousands of rabid fans, ready to see their beloved Heat trounce the San Antonio Spurs. Did I just say trounce? Hmm, that’s not a very nice thing to say, is it? Time to explore the role that oxytocin plays in live events, fan frenzy, and bonding—plus the dance that oxytocin joins with many other hormones.

Oxytocin has quite the reputation. Known as the “Love Hormone,” it is deeply connected to bonding and trust. It is boosted by touch (particularly through hugging), but it can be boosted through a wide range of group activities. Singing with a group, dancing with a group, and chanting with a group—all of these create a surge of oxytocin. Interestingly, one of the most effective non-touch pathways to boosting oxytocin is through watching an emotionally-charged move or play.

Well, put all of those together and you get something quite like a professional sporting event.  Many spectators (as well as the players) credited the fans for the Heat win. You could feel the crowd lifting up the Heat. The crowd screamed together. We high-fived each other. We chanted in unison. We moved in sync. We collectively cheered each success by the Heat, and retreated in cold silence for every Spurs success. We were packed like sardines, constantly rubbing shoulders. We were all wearing the same colors, which, in addition to oxytocin, brought some mirror neuron effects into play! Some of the players were visibly packed to the rim with high emotion. Just like an intense movie, this night was do or die for the Heat; lose this game, and the series would be over—and no team wants to lose at home. The fans were on the edge of their seats and then standing on their seats, right up until the final seconds. The win was like the perfect ending to an amazing movie that we watched with thousands of friends. Simply beautiful.

See how the oxytocin was so thick you could almost taste it?

So why did a nice girl like me say trounce? Turns out that oxytocin not only boosts bonds with the “in” group (fellow Heat fans), but it simultaneously boosts mistrust and dissociation with perceived “out” groups (the Spurs). But in a stadium packed with like-minded fans, the oxytocin was a win-win for everybody—even the Heat.

BKN-NBA-FINALS-SPURS-HEAT-GAME 6Testosterone was certainly flowing, too. This was a very aggressive game, and the players were even more intense than normal (for them). The crowd got a testosterone boost, too—few humans are immune to visible displays of aggression.  Dopamine joined in the fray, too—this was a fun game and a feast for the senses, which add up to a nice little boost in the pleasure/reward centers of the brain.

And yes, plenty of alcohol, which does a great job of moving our mental processing from our executive centers of the brain (responsible for our ‘higher’ mental functions) and moves processing to our limbic system. Guess what? Our limbic system is where we process things from an emotional, primitive place, rather than the higher functional area of our neocortex. In other words, alcohol moves our thinking from the highest functioning area to a lower functioning area. So, at the game, mixed in with all the chanting and high-fiving were some cursing, shoving, and arguments.

The collective dance of oxytocin (for bonding with the in-group and rejecting the out-group), dopamine (for pleasure/reward processing), testosterone (aggression), and a host of other hormone players all work together to balance our psyche. When we’re healthy, we’re designed to pull with one hormone to counteract the push of another. It is when our ‘dancers’ are out of balance (due to depression, substance abuse, stress, and so on), our behavior becomes unbalanced.

130513180425-miami-heat-fans-167162072-single-image-cutFor game 6, the collective dance worked for almost all of us, and we got to experience quite a show—even if it had a few unbalanced bumps along the road to the win. Whatever the outcome of game 7 (where the national champions will be decided, once and for all), game 6 in Miami was one of the greatest games in NBA history. Excitement, passion, intensity, and a stadium packed with oxytocin, dopamine, and testosterone. Oh yeah, and the Heat won.  WOO HOO!