Wired for excitement
Red Sox fans experience many highs and lows while watching the team. MIT researchers and one diehard supporter put those emotions to the test during Game 1 of the World Series.
Sometimes, when she's watching the Red Sox, Elena Tate said, she feels "like I'm going to die." She'll get dizzy. Her palms will sweat. She'll hold her breath. "It's a lot of physiological and psychological stress," she said. "Sometimes, I feel like I can't stand it."
Curious about what's going on inside fans while they cheer or groan on the outside, the Globe, with an assist from MIT Media Lab, wired Tate while she watched Game 1 of the World Series.
The graduate students and journalists weren't qualified to delve deeply into Tate's physical health. But they did track her pulse and "skin conductivity," a measure of emotions, both good and bad.
When Dustin Pedroia hit his first-inning home run, Tate's pulse spiked at 117 beats per minute; after the outcome of the game had been obvious for two innings, she was down to a sleepier 77. Other peak emotional times for the 26-year-old, who watched the game on her mother's couch in Cambridge: when she heard about the offer of a free Taco Bell taco if a player stole a base (which didn't happen until the next night) and when Ashanti sang "God Bless America" in the seventh inning.
Tate has a fairly typical diehard fan story: She's had beer poured on her at Yankee Stadium, toasted the Red Sox at her own wedding - "People were like, 'You should be toasting yourselves.' . . . But it was during the 2003 ALCS. They needed it." - and quit her job in New York before the 2004 playoffs so she could come back home and yell louder.
She still lives in New York, where she works as a massage therapist and is married to a Costa Rican man who doesn't understand her fascination with baseball. But she likes being a Red Sox fan in the land of the Evil Empire. She plays in two fantasy baseball leagues. She knows her stuff.
On Wednesday, she took the Fung Wah Bus back to her childhood home in Cambridgeport because she likes being closer when she watches the games (you can actually hear fans at Fenway Park singing "Sweet Caroline" from their yard).
With sensors in place on her wrists and a finger, Tate settled into a corner of the couch, right next to the old television that she had covered with plastic and written "Cultural Death" on when she was a teenager. Her mother doesn't have cable, which is why she had to sit so close; her emotional reading rose slightly each time she had to adjust the reception.
The data pored in immediately. Josh Beckett struck out the side in the top of the first - three spikes on the monitor that was recording the electrical activity on Tate's skin - and then Pedroia parked one over the Green Monster to lead-off in the bottom of the inning.
For comparison's sake, the MIT Media Lab researchers had planned to create a control sample to provide a counterpoint to the reaction of a diehard fan. Selene Mota, a 30-year-old from Mexico and a member of the Media Lab's Affective Computing Group, was chosen for this role because she had never seen a baseball game.
But she failed as a control because she's excitable to begin with - "I always register high," Mota said - and she got caught up in Tate's emotion.
"I can almost feel what she feels," Mota said as she looked at a monitor displaying Tate's peaks and valleys.
Because Game 1 was a blowout, the emotional investment it required of Tate was not taxing. Joy, joy, and more joy led to the inevitable lull in the late innings.
As the game rolled to an easy close, Tate shot up in her chair as the camera cut to a shot of the Red Sox bullpen. The monitor registered an emotional spike like the rest, but this one was different. It was the first appearance of one of the oldest Red Sox emotions: dread.
"Is that Gagné?" she yelled at the shot of reliever Eric Gagné. "No!"
The presence of Gagné, who has struggled since the team traded for him at the end of July, made Tate uneasy, even with a 13-1 lead. With each Gagné pitch in the ninth, her arousal readings rose steadily.
But the game ended without major drama, and Tate was unsure of her statistical performance in such a lopsided game.
"I get more emotional when they fail," she said.