Another year, another chance for heartbreak

I grew up in what is sometimes considered “Chicagoland,” a wide area around that great city where some people live in alternating states of hope and despair over their beloved baseball team, the Chicago Cubs. The story goes that the team is cursed because fans objected to the odor of a pet goat attending a game in 1945. This is a perfect example of what cognitive science calls magical thinking. Because the Cubs haven’t been to the World Series since 1945, some concluded that a cause and effect relationship exists where there is merely a coincidence. As I write this, Cubs fans all over the world are mentally crossing their fingers and hoping that they will finally see their beloved team in the World Series. At the same time, this dark foreboding in their brain tells them that something will inevitably go wrong.

Your brain, magic and survival

While there is so much that we have yet to understand about this remarkable organ that makes us who we are, we do understand this – Everything our brain does is the result of an evolutionary response to our need to survive as a species. One of our most powerful survival tools has been our brain’s ability to analyze a current situation in light of past knowledge and predict the future. We are hard-wired to see patterns in the events that surround and influence us – even if they aren’t really there. Some of these patterns turn out to be true, proven by the scientific method. Others may prove to be false, like the charming learning styles myth that beguiled many in the learning profession until it was debunked by modern science. Magical thinking has helped the human race make sense of a perplexing, sometimes mysterious world. If you think the age of magic is over, just ask a particle physicist to talk to you about the Higgs Boson “god particle.”

The belief in this particular curse may help passionate Cubs fans deal with the disappointment of getting close to the championship, only to fall short every time. We don’t have to accept that the other team beat us on a particular day, if we’re just unlucky.

Crazy Optimism

Here’s where it gets really interesting. You’d think that if you believed in “the curse” you would just stop rooting for the Cubs. Why keep hoping when you already know the outcome? That’s the classic definition of insanity, at least according to Einstein. So maybe Cubs fans are a little bit crazy. At the start of every baseball season there is this rumbling, “maybe this year.” Cubs fans are an excellent example of the optimism bias at work. Despite evidence to the contrary, we tend to over-estimate our chances more optimistically than the numbers suggest. The Optimism Bias, may also be a survival adaptation. Believing in your success has been shown to improve bodily health and increase sales results. So it makes perfect sense to be pessimistic and optimistic at the same time about the same potential outcome. Since your brain really can’t multi-task, what you’re really doing is alternate between the pessimistic neural connections and the optimistic ones.

The Expectation Effect

Not every Cubs fan believes in the curse, of course. I’ve never given it much thought, but I’m pretty sure a rejected goat isn’t capable of influencing an athletic contest from beyond the grave. However, once your brain has recognized a pattern in past events, it generates a model of the future. This creates an expectation. You then perceive future events as supporting what you expect to see. This is why any form of extremism is so dangerous. Once you adopt a belief that all people of a certain group behave in a certain way you will only notice events that support what you expect to see.

The Brains of Cubs Fans Are Different

So here we are in 2016 and the Cubs may very well be the best team in baseball. They’ve had a terrific season and have a great chance to get into the World Series, so you’d think this would make fans happy. But the tension between hope and fear is stressful; it rewires the brain. According to at least one neuroscientist, the brains of Cubs fans are physically different than the average brain. All of this analysis of the deep, dark machinations of fate takes brain power, specifically the frontal lobe. As famously said by pioneering neuropsychologist Donald Hebb, “neurons that fire together wire together.” The more a Cub fan broods over the curse and how it plays out in recent events the more developed that part of the brain becomes. The stronger the neural chain that leads to that oscillating hope/despair pattern in the brain. Over time, the slightest thing can trigger it. While I don’t know of any formal study of the brains of Cubs fans, it does make sense. We know that cab drivers make part of their brain larger by mentally going over and over the complicated streets of London.

Maybe This Year

Belief in things that happen outside of the realm of our known science isn’t the sole domain of Cubs fans, of course. Because our brains seek patterns, there is comfort, even pleasure, at discovering one, even if the “meaning” we’ve constructed has no basis in what most of us call “reality.” So maybe this is the Cubs’ year and the curse will be banished from Chicagoland forever.

After all, don’t we all really want to believe in Santa Claus?