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Why our brains are drawn to F1 races

Singapore’s Formula 1 Grand Prix race is here again. Fast cars, hot chicks — is there a better recipe for fun? But have you ever wondered what’s behind our love affair with these adrenaline-fuelled sporting events? The secret, it seems, lies deep within the human brain, and neuroscientists believe they have an answer.

Singapore’s Formula 1 Grand Prix race is here again. Fast cars, hot chicks — is there a better recipe for fun? But have you ever wondered what’s behind our love affair with these adrenaline-fuelled sporting events? The secret, it seems, lies deep within the human brain, and neuroscientists believe they have an answer.

Lewis Hamilton or Nico Rosberg? Ferrari or McLaren? It really does not matter who you root for — as far as your brain is concerned, the resulting buzz is the same. When we watch our favourite F1 drivers whizzing around the track, our brains start to release a host of feel-good chemicals — fuelling our addiction even further.

Scientists studying the brain’s neurochemistry have found that when we watch our favourite team or driver win, there is a measurable increase in testosterone. We feel dominant, perhaps even super-charged. And the effect is heightened when we view dangerous sports such as F1, where disaster and death may be just around the corner.

As we stare longingly at the beautiful curves and lines of this year’s latest models (the cars, that is), cells in the brain called “mirror neurons” become activated. Indeed, studies using MRI brain scans have shown that these cells start firing when we watch others engaging in sporting activities. In our minds, we almost become the sports personality and the brain involuntarily imagines itself driving the car, controlling the steering wheel, screeching round those corners.

This occurs because mirror neurons help us to understand the actions of others, effectively putting ourselves in their shoes (or in this case, the driver’s seat).

When it comes to watching F1, mirror neurons cause fans to internalise the actions they are witnessing on the track and feel the accompanying emotions as if they were driving the cars themselves. We experience the danger when a driver takes a corner too fast, the elation when the winner races across the finishing line.

 

HOW CAN SINGAPORE BENEFIT?

 

It is also worth noting that watching the race on television from the comfort of your armchair will not titillate the brain in the same way as catching the action “live”. What makes F1 unique is the multisensory mash-up we experience around the track — the smell of the rubber and petrol fumes, the noise of the cars and the jostling of fans around you. As our brains are bombarded by the intermingling of a multitude of sensory cues, we feel even more alive. While vision may be our dominant sense, brain scientists have shown that when we integrate information from multiple senses, we experience a heightened sense of perception, attention and pleasure.

So when Ferrari dashes across the finish, you can bet that its supporters will experience a huge rush of pleasure caused by the surge of dopamine that often accompanies the sight of our preferred team winning. Dopamine is the brain’s feel-good chemical, and which controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centres and regulates emotion. It is one of the most addictive substances on the planet — the greater the release, the greater the addiction.

Crucially, our desire for excitement is not abating anytime soon. With rising standards of living, our brains will constantly seek other sources of dopamine-inducing highs.

Singapore, with its iconic skyline and superb infrastructure, is well placed to capitalise on this growing demand for exciting sports. Tourism contributes a significant 4 per cent of Singapore’s gross domestic product, supporting 160,000 jobs. Six years ago, Singapore turned down the option to host the Red Bull Air Race, citing a packed events calendar. It was a missed opportunity. But there now appears to be a growing realisation of the positive impact such extreme sporting events can have for the tourism sector.

The next phase of tourism growth is to “keep up adrenaline levels with a vibrant mix of home grown and international events’’, said the Singapore Tourism Board’s annual report 2013/14. Indeed, the lessons from F1 and brain science are clear. People need an outlet for their hard-wired need for speed, danger and exhilaration. High-profile, high-octane sporting events provide an excellent channel for this.

The army of thrill-seeking tourists continues to grow year on year. It is high time Singapore grabs the bull by the horns, steps up to the winner’s podium and secures its title as the super-events capital of Asia.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Gemma Calvert is a neuroscientist, Professor of Marketing Practice at the Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University and the Director for R&D at the Institute of Asian Consumer Insight.

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