Delicious Agony: The Neuroscience of Watching Johnny Weir

Last week’s luge tragedy highlighted the treachery of snow and ice for athletes at Winter Olympics: no performance on a frozen surface is ever more than a few milliseconds or a fraction of an inch away from catastrophe. But as they say in software, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. The ever-present potential for disaster is the essence of the games’ entertainment value.

No one understands this better than figure-skating star Johnny Weir. Since he stormed into the sport’s top ranks by winning the 2004 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the flamboyant performer has dazzled fans with a recklessness that reliably delivers either transcendence or catastrophe. “The most important thing,” Weir has said, “is to not be afraid to fall.” That do-or-die attitude has paid off with the fans and media. Few other athletes can boast the kind of celebrity that Weir has achieved, even before the Sundance Channel debuted its eight-part documentary miniseries about him in January.

And it’s no wonder: neuroscience suggests that circuits within our limbic system — the ancient region deep within our brain that governs emotions — are primed to respond to this kind of volatility. The origins of these circuits lies in our evolutionary past. As social animals, we evolved to feel emotional connection to our fellow humans. In a world filled with dangers, our ancestors’ only protection was their small circle of companions and family members. Empathy was a crucial glue holding these alliances together. A neurological correlate of this emotion has been identified in mental circuits called “mirror neurons,” which activate both when we experience something ourselves and when see someone else experience the same thing. Researchers at Monash University in Australia have that “we may know that someone is in pain in part because observation activates similar neural networks as if we were experiencing that pain ourselves.” Neurologically speaking, in other words, Bill Clinton had it exactly right: I do feel your pain. Contrariwise, when someone else triumphs, the same circuits generate joy in our brains as in theirs. Happiness is contagious.

Then there’s empathy’s dark sister, schadenfreude — the delight we take in others’ misfortune. Long ago, another person’s loss of status could mean an improvement for one’s own standing within the group, and hence for one’s prospects for reproductive success. Last year, Japanese researchers published a paper identifying some of the key brain regions involved. In their experiment, they put subjects in a brain scanner and presented them with a written scenario about a young student. They asked the subjects to imagine themselves as this protagonist, then gave them descriptions of other characters, one of whom was described as being more athletic, more popular, and more successful. This information was designed to elicit envy, a feeling of social pain that arises when we are forced to make unfavorable comparisons between ourselves and others. As the subjects performed this exercise their brains showed activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region that processes cognitive conflicts.

The subjects then read that the successful character had suffered a number of misfortunes, such as coming down with food poisoning. This information elicited feelings of schadenfreude and simultaneously aroused activity in the ventral striatum, a central part of the brain’s reward system. Note that the subjects only experienced the delicious tingle of schadenfreude when reading about the trials of the character who was more fortunate than they. When less socially dominant characters suffered, the test subjects experienced neither activation of the ventral striatum nor a sensation of pleasure.

The interplay of these two social emotions — empathy and schadenfreude — explains why we find Johnny Weir so fascinating. When he’s successful, our mirror neurons catch the reflected glow of his joy and allow us to feel a second-hand version of it ourselves. Our pleasure centers light up as we vicariously thrill to the physical experience of athleticism at its finest. He soars, and we soar.

When he fails, it’s schadenfreude time. Our automatic social-processing centers process his accomplishments — his TV show, his larger-than-life persona, his countless trophies — and instantly identify him as a person of elevated status. We recognized him as someone to look up, to envy. His mishaps on the ice, then, provide a pleasurable release from our relative inadequacy. He stumbles cost him some of his prestige and social standing, and at some level we feel that our own self-worth is a little more secure.

From a neuroscience point of view, then, loving Johnny Weir is a no-brainer.  Regardless of how his performance pans out, a neural circuit in the brain will trigger a pleasurable feeling in the viewer. Triumph or tragedy, thrill of victory or agony of defeat — either way, we come out on top.