Immediately after Carl Gunnarsson whiffed on a point shot early in overtime against the Devils, I got that feeling. You know the one I’m talking about; that sensation of feeling your stomach plummet into your feet. My palms got a little clammier, my heart began beating a little faster. Before I could verbalize anything the puck was behind Reimer and the remote was across the room.
If you watch enough hockey you will experience this phenomena at least a few times each game, more so if you happen to be a Flames fan. How exactly does your body know something bad is about to happen before your brain does?
The answer lies in a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, the NAcc. The NAcc was discovered accidentally by two McGill neuroscientists in 1954. The NAcc is a collection of neurons that make up the brain’s pleasure center. The aforementioned McGill neurologists constantly stimulated the NAcc in lab rats in a series of tests. The rats completely withdrew from one another and eventually died of thirst. Eventually they deduced that the stimulation of the NAcc triggered a massive release of the neurotransmitter dopamine and as a result the rats had overdosed on pleasure. For a more detailed explanation you can read an earlier article in which I explain why watching your team lose makes you feel bad.
When you get right down to it watching hockey is the neurological equivalent of being a lab rat. We sit in a room with some food and water and watch a box waiting for something on the screen, be it a fight, goal, or save, to trigger the release of dopamine and make us feel good.
As demonstrated by Pavlov we can be conditioned to expect a reward based on external stimuli not directly related to the reward itself. Ring one off the post and I’ll salivate. Since dopamine is also responsible for feelings of anger and displeasure, the reverse it also true.
Once you’ve watched enough hockey games your brain learns the events that more often than not lead to a goal either for or against. It’s why the phrase “to the line, but not out” will be engraved on my tombstone.
As soon as Gunnarsson missed a clean look at the net from the point my NAcc knew something bad was going to happen. I was hit with a twinge of fear and my heart began to race. Sure enough 30 seconds later the game was over.
So the next time you get that feeling in your gut when the defenseman pinches, or when the goalie wanders from the net to play the puck you know why.