Memorable Madness

Brain study shows why sports create especially powerful memories

Critical moments during the flow of the game become etched in our memories.

Sports memories are sticky.

Critical moments within the flow of the game can become etched in our memory even beyond buzzer-beaters and Hail Marys.

According to new research, this is because these events happen to delight the brain as much as they delight our inner rabid fan.

In a study of 20 undergraduate basketball fans, a team of Princeton University scientists found that surprise plays a key role in defining memories of a sporting event. Very dramatic games punctuated with surprise tap into a process in the brain that allows us to forge powerful memories, the team discovered.

When we see a player upend our expectations of how a game should go — say, by bombing a free throw or getting an unexpected steal — the brain registers this moment as surprise. That surprise interrupts the narrative flow of the game in our memories and creates something akin to a new paragraph.

And that new paragraph, the study suggests, tends to with fans long after a game, first author James Antony, a researcher at the Princeton University's Computational Memory Lab, tells Inverse.

“In our study, surprise across possessions of a basketball game strongly predicted memory for these possessions — meaning that those moments in which the win probability shifted tend to really stick with us!" Antony says.

The study was published Wednesday in Neuron.

The 2019 March Madness final. Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

How do we remember sports? — While we may think of time as a seamless stream (it’s actually a collection of snapshots), we remember events in separate chunks. We describe getting up, making coffee, and going to work — events with a beginning and an end.

But as Antony explains, it can be hard to know exactly when those events begin and end. The boundaries of memories aren't always obvious.

That’s especially true in the case of a sports game. While we have time markers like periods, quarters, or halves, the action of the game can be broken down into more discrete moments within the overall flow. A steal, a change in momentum, or a shot could all mark a new chapter. What makes one shot more memorable than another?

Surprise, says Antony, could be at play.

An idea common across psychology studies is that our brain is constantly updating a mental model of the world. When something happens that upends that model, we’re surprised — and we have to update our model of the world. That surprise, Antony, proposes, could be one way that we start to break the stream of consciousness into manageable chunks.

Because basketball moves fast, with both regular and rapid possession changes, viewers have to constantly update their mental model of who is going to win the game. It’s something like a win probability graph inside the mind that changes as we watch the players go toe-to-toe. They are opportunities for us to change our expectations of who is going to win.

“We don’t tackle our best friend over the couch in a moment of pure elation after a routine layup in the opening minutes of a game, but we might do so in a close game after a three-pointer in the closing seconds," Antony says. "The apparent reason for this is the win probability change."

Why do memories live on in the brain?

Antony and his team asked basketball fans to watch the final five minutes of nine games from the 2012 NCAA Tournament and mark the beginning and end of game units using their own judgment. Simultaneously, the researchers tracked the fan's eye movements and scanned their brains.

The subjects were likely to mark the beginning and end of segments when possession changed, Antony explains. If that possession ended in a surprise, participants tended to remember it better later on.

They were especially likely to mark the end of a segment, or the beginning of another, when a moment in the game appeared to significantly change the probability of a team winning.

Activation of the VTA and the Nucleus Accumbens, areas related to reward processing, was correlated with surprise. That was even the case when participants had a stake in who won (signed surprise).

These moments were accompanied by the physical hallmarks of surprise, including the dilation of pupils and activity in reward related regions like the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the nucleus accumbens.

This suggests a tight game with lots of game-altering events forces us to create constant changes in our mental model. In response, we get a game with lots of these discrete chunks.

"All in all, this means that games that are neck-in-neck, with a lot of lead changes, result in more surprise and more perceived segments than blowouts, where the outcome is basically settled far before the game ends,” Antony says.

We especially enjoy surprise — people’s enjoyment of each basketball game correlated with how surprised they were during it — and that surprise also helps strengthen these mental boundaries, Antony says. The scientists write that the "longest lasting memories are formed precisely in those moments when beliefs substantially shift.”

Ultimately, the brain is far busier while watching basketball than it seems. A sports fan is experiencing huge shifts in perspective in a matter of seconds.

It's no surprise then, that sports can make us a bit emotional.

Abstract: Surprise signals a discrepancy between past and current beliefs. It is theorized to be linked to affective experiences, the creation of particularly resilient memories, and segmentation of the flow of experience into discrete perceived events. However, the ability to precisely measure naturalistic surprise has remained elusive. We used advanced basketball analytics to derive a quantitative measure of surprise and characterized its behavioral, physiological, and neural correlates in human subjects observing basketball games. We found that surprise was associated with segmentation of ongoing experiences, as reflected by subjectively perceived event boundaries and shifts in neocortical patterns underlying belief states. Interestingly, these effects differed by whether surprising moments contradicted or bolstered current predominant beliefs. Surprise also positively correlated with pupil dilation, activation in subcortical regions associated with dopa- mine, game enjoyment, and long-term memory. These investigations support key predictions from event segmentation theory and extend theoretical conceptualizations of surprise to real-world contexts.
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