When he needed to provoke emotional highs in research subjects, Duke neuroscientist Kevin LaBar turned to what else: a Duke/UNC basketball game.
The result: a paper in an academic journal peeling the cover back on the brain's tendency to better recall happy moments than disappointing ones.
LaBar and his research team took two dozen college-age men - half Duke fans, half UNC fans, and had them watch the Duke/UNC game from Feb. 3, 2000 - a nail-biter at the Dean Dome that Duke pulled out 90-86 in overtime.
"How do you ethically manipulate people's emotions to the extreme?" LaBar said. "A Duke/UNC rivalry is rife with emotion."
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The research subjects -- who first had to prove their fan cred by filling out a college hoops questionnaire -- watched the game three times in the course of the week.
Then, they were put into an MRI machine while watching game clips and were quizzed on whether a series of shots went in or not.
The conclusion: The UNC fans remembered more of the big shots the Tar Heels made, while the Duke fans remembered more of the Blue Devil highlights.
The explanation: A big, emotional moment in a game triggers a higher level of brain processing. Essentially, the brain works harder when something good happens.
"It's like for the spectacular shot, you sort of put yourself in the shoes of the player," LaBar said. "And if your team isn't doing well, you kind of tune it out."
LaBar co-authored the study with David Rubin. Both professors are in Duke's psychology and neuroscience department.
Their study will appear today in the Journal of Neuroscience.
LaBar hopes the research findings can lead to breakthroughs for people with depression or other mood disorders.
The Duke fans and the UNC fans did equally well on the memory test. And they all made their rooting allegiances clear.
"They couldn't be a fan of both teams," LaBar said. "But that wasn't an issue."