Why nail-biting sports matches are good for mental health

20 July 2019

9:00 AM

20 July 2019

9:00 AM

Why do we need tie-breaks and photo finishes? If competitors have been nip-and-tuck all the way, why can’t they just share victory? England supporters who watched the ICC Cricket World Cup final might have been febrile with joy when the extra-time ‘super over’ ended in another tie, giving England the margin on boundaries, but New Zealand’s Black Caps lost by less than a whisker. Why shouldn’t they have halved the triumph? Why shouldn’t Roger Federer, who went toe-to-toe with Novak Djokovic in the longest-ever Wimbledon final, have lifted one side of that famous trophy?

The answer is that human beings need resolution. Spectators need to know the thing has been finally settled. Professional sport is a test of nerve; it is not simply a physical contest. If it were, outcomes would be predictable: the most technically accomplished players would always win. This is not the case. Competitions aim to pit equally skilled contestants and teams against each other under constraints, motivated by staggering amounts of money. Millions can then watch as the tension mounts to crescendo.

There are complex reasons why the brain undergoes resolution after such climaxes, not only in sport but in all high-tension exchanges. Most of our leisure activities involve an emotional rollercoaster: pressure rising to a peak followed by resolution. The pattern is always the same. The greater the tension, the more satisfying the release.

Sport, classical music, horror films, gambling, white-knuckle rides, TV quizzes, reality shows, theatre, computer games, adventure activities — all, if any good, end in climax and resolution. We are drawn to these sensations in some mysterious way.

Is this a genetic memory of hunting trips that ended in a slaying? No. The brain is more sophisticated. Nor are these arousal curves some minor version of sexual climaxes, since humans have turned sex into an art form specifically in order to achieve complex tension rises, peaks and resolutions. Animals just use sex for making little animals.

‘Adrenalin junkies’ are going after mental climaxes too, drawn to that place beyond fear, to the catharsis, ego-release, and tranquillity that follow such mental convulsions. These feelings are like epiphanies in religious faith or near-death experiences. The exhilarating pattern is so important to human beings that they are willing to place themselves in peril to experience it.

At the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, Nobel prize-winning scientists such as Murray Gell-Mann, Philip Anderson and Kenneth Arrow have studied ‘complex systems’ such as the money markets, artificial intelligence, insect swarms and piles of sand. These all exhibit a phenomenon known as ‘emergence’. At the highest point of tension and on the edge of chaos, these systems change gear and suddenly produce order.

One of these systems is the human brain. Arguably that is why, at the very zenith of a personal crisis, we may get an epiphany; why great fiction writers and poets have celebrated high-tension climaxes in their work; and why creative people go through an emotional apex to produce their best.

My research, spanning many years in the arts, sports psychology and the science of ‘stress’, emphasises the importance to mental health of the brain’s access to what I call the ‘cerebral climax’. The brain pulls us to go after CCs and rewards us with buzzes and highs when we achieve them.

Possibly our minds train us to produce this same fulfilling pattern over and over because, like all complex systems, we need ‘phase transition’ to produce order out of chaos. Climaxes enable the brain to convulse its powers and achieve its goal of resolution.

When we experience climaxes, we are seeing the brain fulfil its great quest of connecting, co-ordinating and crystallising its trillions of digits of information. Perhaps this is how it makes sense of reality.

Unfortunately, we live in an age of emotional health and safety. Opponents of competitive events insist every child is a winner on school sports days. We are constantly warned against emotional extremes, against tension and pressure. People turn away from gripping sporting contests such as Wimbledon and the Cricket World Cup because they fear high-pitched emotional exigencies, and if you have a pre-existing heart condition you should be careful with this stuff.

But ‘stress management’ prescribes risk aversion for all. We are always being told that calming down is the key to mental and physical health. Then we go about our lives wondering why we feel unfulfilled and dissatisfied and depressed and cheated. Take your hands away from your face and watch that final. It could be good for you.

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