Depending on who you talk to, there are different definitions of something called “The Shot” in the history of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
To North Carolina fans, it's Michael Jordan’s game-winning jumper in the 1982 final, while to Hoosier fans, it's Keith Smart’s 16-foot swish with under 10 seconds to go in 1988. But Christian Laettner’s last-second turnaround game-winner in the 1991 regional final over Kentucky is forever etched into the memories of Duke fans.
Do those same rabid supporters remember the crucial missed shots from their heroes over the years? Neuroscience researchers at Duke University wanted to find out, so they tested the memories of some fans from two of the most crazed college basketball schools—Duke and North Carolina.
While they are both avid Blue Devil fans themselves, David Rubin and Kevin LaBar, professors of psychology and neuroscience at Duke, are actually trying to study the link between our emotions and our memory of events. Understanding how our brains catalog and store memories in the presence of intense feelings may help patients suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Rather than showing test subjects a disturbing set of images like flowers followed by massacres to elicit high and low emotional reactions, they thought of using the intense drama of a college basketball rivalry game to measure memories.
“You can get much more emotional intensity with a basketball game film than you could ethically otherwise,” said Rubin.
They gathered 24 guys who claimed to be avid Duke or North Carolina basketball fans and gave them a quick basketball IQ test to make sure they had a decent amount of basketball knowledge. Next, they showed each of them a replay of the February 3, 2000, overtime classic between the Blue Devils and Tar Heels, which Duke won 90-86.
The 12 Duke fans and the 12 Carolina fans each watched the entire game three times to, hopefully, set up some memories of key moments in the game.
Then the fun started. Each volunteer was put inside an fMRI machine to record their brain activity as they watched 64 different 12-second clips of the game. Each clip ended with one of the team’s players about to release a shot. The fans were asked to remember if that particular shot went in or not. “Brain imaging provides details we could not get with earlier technologies, such as studies of brain damage,” said Rubin.
As they had hypothesized, the test subjects were more accurate remembering a made shot by their favorite team than a missed shot by their team or a successful shot by the enemy.
By linking high emotion, in this case positive, to an event, a person recruits additional areas of their brain to form the memory connection. From the fMRI images, Rubin and LaBar saw that the amygdala contributed the emotions, the hippocampus contributed memory functions while the pre-frontal cortex added in some empathy for the player in that situation.
Interestingly, sensory motor areas of the brain also lit up that may have resulted in the fan giving the shot some of their own body english as they mimic the shooter.
This wider distribution of active neurons forming the memory helps us recall events with less effort. Unfortunately, these emotion-filled remembrances apply to negative events as well for the traumas in our lives (i.e. what were you doing when you heard about the 9/11 terrorist attacks?)
For these basketball fans, the positive emotion of made shots seems to have formed stronger memory networks than the disappointment of missed shots.
Could this same linkage affect the players as well? The concept of “shooter’s amnesia” is often mentioned by coaches and announcers, who point out that the best players have short or poor memories of their misses so that they don’t lose confidence during the game.
By the way, Rubin notes that both sets of fans did just as well on the recall test so neither should claim superiority. Of course, that didn’t stop the Duke fans. ”They thought they were better, but they weren’t,” he said.