Soccer Science: Prediction Error

Scott Halleran

Losing back-to-back games has led to a drop in confidence among the Dynamo faithful. Some fans are taking to Twitter to lambast the lackluster effort, while others are glad for the streak's distraction to be gone. Either way, Houston heads to Kansas City this weekend for a chance at instant redemption, but is our heart in it?

We as Dynamo fans have had a few days now to process what happened over the last two weeks. First, the Wiz-kids stole a hard fought 1-0 win to break our beloved win streak. Then, while we were still mourning our first-ever loss, the Revs decided to flop a couple goals past us to the tune of a 2-0 shutout.

Needless to say, things have been better in DynamoLand, but that's not what I'm here to talk about. Things will get better. How do I know?

The Science

There's a series of connections in your brain that, in a very basic sense, are responsible for reward and memory. Part of this "reward" section is called the Ventral Tegmental Area. While that may sound like made up scientific jargon, you actually know what the VTA does, you just know it from another example - Pavlov's Dogs. It goes something like this:

First, you give a dog a biscuit. Then, you condition the dog to associate this reward with a "condition stimulus", like a ringing bell. After a while, the dog begins to associate "ringing bell" with "biscuity goodness". If you track its brain activity throughout all of this, you begin to see a bigger and bigger spike of dopamine release from the VTA. In effect, the experience of the ringing bell is becoming more and more pleasurable, because the dog knows that biscuit is coming. This is interesting and all, but what happens when you don't follow up the ringing bell with a tasty treat? Some would predict that the dogs brain would just go back to normal, non-biscuit levels. In fact, the levels of dopamine did drop, but they did something unexpected - they dropped well below normal levels to (essentially) zero, prompting what was referred to as a "prediction error". The dog experienced (justified) disappointment at not receiving his reward after the stimulus.

Back to the Soccer

Much like these dogs, Dynamo fans began to anticipate glory when home games came around. After a year of conditioning, our brains began pumping us full of dopamine when we saw the men in orange take BBVA by storm. The result was predetermined and expected: home match = win.

With these two straight home losses, however, that glory never came about. Our brains instead dropped to ice-cream-and-Love-Actually levels of sadness. You can't help it, Dynamo fans, it's your brains' fault.

Fear not, friends: this drop in dopamine won't last forever. A three match road trip awaits. Sure, there may be losses, and yes, our back line is in tatters. But this team is more than prepared for adversity. They'll rebound.

With each new win from here on out, our brains will once again become conditioned for success. Much like winning ways, dopamine will return.

In fact, I can't think of a more delicious dog biscuit to start our home streak against than Tucson FC.

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