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Exploring the cognitive science of sports

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This is Your Brain on Sports' engages and informs

We as a culture love sports and the men and women who play them. We are fascinated by the nature of competition; we make connections that become passionate lifelong commitments. We root for the home team and admire superstar performers.

But ... why?

That's the question that 'This is Your Brain on Sports: The Science of Underdogs, the Value of Rivalry, and What We Can Learn From the T-Shirt Cannon' (Crown Archetype, $26), by L. Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers, attempts to answer. The book delves into the psychology of sporting participation, whether as a player or a fan.

Did you ever wonder why NFL quarterbacks tend to be good-looking dudes? Or if they're actually all that good-looking? Check out the opening chapter, titled 'Why Tom Brady and All those Other Quarterbacks are so Damned Good-Looking (or are they?)' It turns out that there's a lot more to it than chiseled jawlines and steely resolve; in fact, it might not have much to do with their appearances at all.

Ever think about why it is that, when rooting in a vacuum, we seem to be hardwired to pull for the underdog? Or why we're compelled to fight tooth and nail for a free T-shirt fired out of a cannon - a T-shirt that we'd never actually consider buying? There are well-reasoned, well-researched explanations here - explanations that also happen to be clever and funny and narratively engaging.

From 'Why Hockey Goons Would Rather Fight at Home' to 'Why We Want Gronk at Our Backyard Barbecue - And Why He Wants to Be There,' from 'Why Giving Every Little League Kid a Trophy is Such a Lousy Idea' to 'Why the World Cup Doesn't Lead to World Peace,' 'This is Your Brain on Sports' breaks down the sociological and psychological implications of how we engage with sports on every level, from the youth level all the way up to the highest echelon of professional performance.

Sports fandom - and even sports participation to a lesser extent - can be an extremely illogical and irrational thing. Rooting for your team is in essence rooting for laundry, watching (admittedly impressive) athletes performing feats that, while incredible, are in many ways largely meaningless. What 'This is Your Brain on Sports' does so beautifully is provide a context for that seeming illogic and irrationality.

Basically, if you're a sports fan and someone in your life simply doesn't get it, hand them this book. It probably won't convert them, but it's a stimulating and fun read that might at least help them to understand where you're coming from. It's a smart book that is unafraid to challenge the reader, yet still manages to address complex concepts in an easily relatable way.

Wertheim and Sommers are a perfect pairing for such a book. On the one hand, you have Wertheim, a long-time sportswriter who is considered to be one of the best in the business and has long shown interest in the psychological side of sport. On the other, there's Sommers, a Tufts University teacher and researcher in the field of social psychology who happens to be a diehard sports fan. Their respective strengths are magnified by one another, resulting in (apologies in advance for the cliche) an absolute home run.

'This is Your Brain on Sports' is a smart, thoughtful look at the 'why' of sports, combining concise explanations and engaging anecdotes into a perfect storm of informative entertainment. Whether you love sports or like sports - or couldn't care less - there's something worthwhile to be found here.


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