The 2012 London Olympics was one of the most successful Olympic events ever held. At a final price tag of $14.8 billion it was also one of the most expensive.


Team Great Britain athletes competed at the highest level winning the most medals ever awarded to British Olympians in the last 100 plus years.

Another expensive Olympiad was the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Team China surpassed the United States in total gold medals awarded. This has never happened before or since.

Aside from the obvious connection to economics and how a host country spends a lot of money on an Olympic event could lead to increased enthusiasm and a spike in patriotism. There is a phenomenon in neuroscience that could explain how the effects of large cheering crowds and national pride could have a directly positive impact on athletic performance.

The theory is called brain-to-brain coupling. Scientists at Princeton University’s Neuroscience Institute are leading the way in measuring how the perceptual experience of a person’s brain can impact the motor system of another.

In an article published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, a team led by Uri Hasson defined brain-to-brain coupling as “a shift from a single-brain to a multi-brain frame of reference.” They argue “…the neural processes in one brain are coupled to the neural processes in another brain via transmission of a signal through the environment (italics mine). Brain-to-brain coupling constrains and shapes the actions of each individual in a social network, leading to complex joint behaviors that could not have emerged in isolation.”

In other words, a national crowd cheering you on, being positive, hoping for you to win matched with the power of your intention and giving your best effort is a potentially measurable phenomenon. Brain-to-brain coupling links the cheering crowd and the power of their desire for you to win, with the power of your intention to win. If the scientists have it right, it means that an athlete or individual being cheered is likely to achieve a higher result than could have been achieved in isolation.

Here are 4 lessons to remember when applying the theory of brain-to-brain coupling to the psychology of positivity and winning.

  • 1Your thoughts impact others

    When explaining brain-to-brain coupling to a group, I was once asked if this could explain some of the “pseudo-science” behind the Law of Attraction and other theories like karma and “what goes around comes around.”

    In short, it could. But if we take the idea that our brains are linked in a social network that ties us together in perceptually synched ways like language, empathy, mirror neurons and emotions it could be that brain-to-brain coupling opens up Pandora’s Box. It is a plausible theory that comes close to neurologically detailing how a “transmission of a signal through the environment” from one brain can have a measurable effect on the brains of others.

    When we focus our positive thoughts, intentions and desires on others they will in turn feel it as positive and motivational.

  • 2Imagine you’re always the home team

    In sports, the home team typically has a psychological advantage over the visiting team. The cheering crowd becomes the “12th man” that gives the team an extra edge, or a “home field advantage”. Brain to brain coupling explains why this is such an important phenomenon to apply to your life.

    The more you put yourself into a place where you feel welcome, the more you will feel like you are the home team and the people really want you to win. Therefore, the more likely you will win. This is an important advantage in feeling more positive under stressful conditions.

    The next time you are in a difficult meeting or job interview just imagine that people want what you are offering. They are cheering for you to win. The more you can imagine yourself being cheered the more positive you will become.


    Just quietly think in the midst of a stressful encounter “they want me to win” and take a deep breath. Keep thinking that thought “they want me to win”. Then add to it “I am going to win.” Allow yourself to feel confident and relaxed as if you have an advantage as the home team. Doing so could change people’s attitude towards you from one of hostility or even unfamiliarity to one of moderation and respect. You are no longer focused on the stress of the meeting. You are more relaxed and positive because you feel you have an internal advantage, like you are the home team.

    This is an excellent mind technique to help you feel more confident and resilient in the face of steep life challenges or adversities.

  • 3The more you cheer for others the more they will cheer for you

    The human brain likes positivity. As such, we will naturally cheer for others because we know it feels good to be cheered on. It makes us feel like we can win, we can do what we thought we could not do. Brain-to-brain coupling explains why being positive and cheering others offers positive energy; that is actually transmitted from your brain to the brains of others. When we are rewarded positively, brain chemicals like endorphins, oxytocin and dopamine are released to excite us and help us to feel good. The more we feel good about someone achieving something great, the more it motivates us to achieve something great.

    Crowd mosh cheering

    Think about this in terms of the people you are around now. If you are a manager leading a team, do you cheer your team or individuals on your team? Are you critical of their mistakes more than rewarding their successes? If you are experiencing difficulties with friends or family, think about how much you actually cheer for others to win. How positive are you towards others? If you want to change people’s attitude towards you, try cheering for them to do something positive or noteworthy.

    A little bit of positivity goes a long way.

  • 4Optimism is the key to people believing in you and you believing in yourself

    Studies in positive psychology support the idea that optimism is the key to improved motivation and self belief. Martin Seligman’s research at the Positive Psychology programme at the University of Pennsylvania proves resilience and optimism go hand in hand.

    Typically, the more “realistically optimistic” you are the more resilient you will be. Realistic optimism allows you to keep yourself up and motivate others around you when a challenge or adversity strikes. When you are optimistic people’s belief in you grows. As their belief in you increases, brain-to-brain coupling suggests that you will increase self belief and self confidence. You are less likely to shy away from a challenge, or fear a change when you have a high self belief and confidence.

    Optimism will help you most the next time you receive bad news, or when things do not go your way. Focus on being more realistically optimistic by looking at a situation as it is, and not looking at how you want it to be.

    Address the reality of the situation and look for ways you can grow optimistically. Be positive, and help others be positive even though the challenging circumstances exist. Being optimistic helps us all to believe more in ourselves and our own abilities, and this also is the key to post-adversity growth.

    The next time you are cheering for a person or a team to win, remember brain-to-brain coupling. Your cheers matter. They not only help your team to win, but they will help you to feel like a winner in the process.

    For more information please listen to my lunchtime talk on “The Neuroscience of Positivity and Winning”