Behind the Magic at Fenway
Sports fans in New England are a strange breed, sharing a devotion to their favorite teams that borders on religious fervor. Perhaps they’re aware that the word “fan” is a shortened version of “fanatic” (not a surprise), which comes from the Latin word “fanaticus,” referring to possession by the deity or spirit of a particular temple or shrine. And there’s probably no more popular sports shrine around than Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox. That ballpark has seen plenty of satisfied worshippers since the amazing World Series victory of 2004. Many baseball commentators talked about “Fenway magic” — the home field advantage (HFA) — as being a key component of the team’s successes (and let’s not forget the 2007 championship as well), but few are aware of emerging research from the field of energy medicine which documents the key role that subtle energy plays in the all-important HFA.
Studying the HFA involves obvious factors like friendly faces and positive cheers from the crowd, home cooking and comfortable beds, not to mention jet-lagged opponents. But it also opens the door to a whole range of unusual, if not downright mystical and paranormal, phenomena that have previously been known only to an inner circle of researchers in the esoteric field of subtle energies, members of groups with acronyms like IONS, PEAR, ISSSEEM, and, yes, SOC.
However, baseball has the potential to bring these critical insights right into the cultural mainstream as part of an emerging 21st century social transformation, because the same energy processes that underlie such holistic healing methods as acupuncture, tai chi, intercessory prayer and Reiki also impact sports performance. I have been investigating this overlap in recent years in my dual roles as a holistic psychiatrist at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston and as a lifelong Sox fan. More recently, my filmmaker cousin and I have recorded interviews with players, fans and researchers in order to make a documentary film about this topic called “The Joy of Sox: Weird Science and the Power of Intention.”
Belief in these mysterious forces is quite widespread despite its arcane-sounding research jargon: heart rate variability, group electromagnetic fields, random number generators, team chemistry. However, these concepts are not as elusive as these terms sound. For example, team chemistry describes the effect of a cohesive group of people functioning more effectively than a bunch of random individuals thrown together. Remember the “lovable idiots” of the 2004 Red Sox? They were fun to watch, obviously enjoyed each others’ company and inspired the affection of their fans. Science shows that all those shared emotions can have a positive impact on sports performance, more than just the result of a happy mood, which reduces stress.
The Institute of HeartMath in Boulder Creek, California reports that mind/body coordination is enhanced when people enter a unique state of psychophysiologic balance and heart rhythm called “heart coherence.” This state of heart rate variability (HRV) occurs when the heartbeat becomes less like a metronome and more like a slowly undulating wave in its variations1. Emotions like appreciation and joy engender this variable rhythm by balancing the competing arms of the autonomic nervous system. HRV training helps research subjects enter “the zone” of peak athletic performance. It has long been suspected that these emotions (and their beneficial effects) are literally contagious, and can spread from person to person without words or sounds, seemingly from beyond the realm of the five physical senses.
In a laboratory test done at the Institute of HeartMath, a research subject was blindfolded and earplugged while his HRV was being monitored. The readings sputtered along at a very low level of coherence until a group of experienced meditators quietly entered the room and began their silent heart coherence practice. The monitored subject’s HRV rose dramatically, as if his nervous system was literally being entrained into the group’s stronger state of coherence.2 The findings imply that a group of people in a shared state of happiness can literally spread positive vibes, such as what might occur with teammate-to-teammate chemistry and fan-to-player cheering.
Stanford physicist William Tiller noted that positive emotions generate standing waves of higher order resonant energy1, but they can easily be dissipated by negative emotions like angry booing. In other words, if you are booing “Yankees suck!,” you are liable to cancel out the benefits of other fans cheering “Go Sox!” Cheering works better if all the fans are on the same page, though I’m not sure our Yankee-bashing fans are ready to make this major shift in consciousness just yet!
When Fenway fans join in a positive mood together, especially during rallies sparked by an Ortiz home run, a Papelbon K or an Ellsbury stolen base, that feeling of mass enthusiasm is palpable, memorable and, not incidentally, highly addictive. We measured this effect by building on work done at Princeton University over the past 30 years. The PEAR (Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research) lab has documented that seemingly random events (like a random ball cascade, a stochastic robot, or a randomized stream of computer-generated ones and zeroes) can be affected by the human mind 3. Even though there are no physical connections between the people and the machines, these mind/machine interactions are real and reproducible.
We took a modified version of Princeton’s random number generator (RNG) software to Fenway and were able to detect several clear moments of high non-randomness during a ballgame last year. Such moments of non-randomness are detected when the RNG output diverges from true 50/50 randomness of the 1s and 0s by more than two standard deviations to reach statistical significance. These RNG spikes happened at the same times as game events or actions that had strong emotional significance to the crowd. The game’s absolute peak effect — an unlikely swing of 3.40 standard deviations — came not during a play on the field, but during the “Sweet Caroline” singalong that has become a regular 8th inning ritual, compelling proof of the power that music has on human emotions. Noteworthy in our research is that our computer didn’t have a microphone, electrode or vibration detector; it was just a laptop whose software was generating a steady stream of thousands of 1s and 0s per second from its perch above the right field grandstand. But could these 1s and 0s be the key to proving the Fenway magic is real?
Players confirm the positive effects of being bathed in this atmosphere of support. Former outfielder Gabe Kapler called Fenway “the ultimate amphetamine.” Mike Timlin told us how it gets him so deeply into the zone that he can sometimes know exactly what the opposing batters are thinking (“It’s like ESP, or whatever you want to call it.”) Sportscaster Jerry Remy also noted the edge that Fenway gives the Sox because this fan intensity “not only boosts the Sox, but it also intimidates the other players.”
Iconoclast Bill “Spaceman” Lee, however, remarked how brawls between players could help spark team energy as effectively “as any of that touchy-feely stuff could.” (Turns out he was particularly fond of sparring with Hall of Fame teammate Carlton Fisk). The Spaceman is also skeptical that Fenway Park has its own special aura, what Stanford physicist William Tiller calls a “conditioned space.” Dr. Tiller has documented that chemical properties like the pH (acidity level) of water samples can be altered if the samples are placed in a room that has hosted an ongoing series of regular group meditations4. Even when obvious variables like temperature and humidity are controlled, experiments unfold differently in spaces that have been “conditioned” by this sort of earlier human mental activity.
This finding implies that shrines like Lourdes and Chartres (and Fenway?) may have been conditioned by thousands of people pouring out intense emotions for decades, if not centuries. If that’s true, then it should be possible to detect something “in the air” at these sacred spaces even when no one is present. Our own preliminary readings at Fenway in the off-season and during the lull between games suggest that a modest but measurable effect seems to linger on at Fenway even after the fans have gone home.
Related scientific studies support the hypothesis that “fan power” brings the home team advantage to life. Noted prayer researcher Larry Dossey has described how so-called intercessory or distant prayer can boost the health of patients in the ICU5. We suspect that distant prayer for players can boost their performance in the same way. From a practical perspective, it looks as though fans can have a very beneficial resonant impact on their favorite players, and when they band together — look out!
To that end, we invite you to join our online intentionality experiment! Members of Red Sox Nation can take five minutes before the start of each Friday night game to get into the zone and beam positive energies to the Sox with all of us. We’ll be there with open hearts, all cheers and no doubts!
Eric Leskowitz, MD heads the Integrative Medicine Project at Spaulding Rehabilition Hospital and is a member of the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. For more information about the film visit www.TheJoyOfSoxMovie.com.
1. Tiller, W., McCraty, R. and Atkinson, M. “Cardiac coherence: a new non-invasive measure of autonomic nervous system order.” Alternative Therapies 2(1):52-65, 1996. http://www.heartmath.org/research/rp-cardiac-coherence-a-new-noninvasive-measure-of-autonomic-nervous-system-order.html
2. Leskowitz, E. The influence of group heart rhythm on target subject physiology: Case report of a laboratory demonstration, and suggestions for further research. Subtle Energies and Energy Medicine, 18(3):77-88, 2009. 3. Jahn, R., and Bunne, B. “The PEAR Proposition.” Journal of Scientific Exploration, 19(2); 195-245. 2005. http://www.princeton.edu/~pear/pdfs/jse_papers/PEARproposition.pdf
4. Tiller W, Dibble W et al. “Toward general experimentation and discovery in conditioned laboratory spaces: Part II. pH-change experience at four remote sites 1 year later. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 10(2):301-6, 2004.
5. Dossey, L., Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine, HarperOne, NY, NY, 1997.