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The science of being a fan

DE RERUM NATURA - Maria Isabel Garcia () - March 1, 2012 - 12:00am

Those close to me know me for having a very low IQ when it comes to knowing who’s who in the celebrity scene, whether in showbiz or society in general. It is not so much dislike on my part as much as it is boredom. Unless a supposed celebrity is backed up by his or her own interesting work or story (i.e., not the story of the stuff they are endorsing), listening to or reading about them seem to make my brain cells conspire to form a yawn. While the human brain has a really big capacity for storing information, including for who supposedly matter in society, I somehow admittedly have very weak connections in my head when it comes to those that require my personal adulation. But I have one bright spot in my very weak “fan” brain.

I have had a crush on the actor Alan Alda since I was about nine years old when the sitcom M*A*S*H was still showing here in the 70s. M*A*S*H stood for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital which in the story was in North Korea during the war where Hawkeye was one of the doctors. I thought then that someone who would play a smart, irreverent, funny and kind character as Hawkeye Pierce must really be well, smart, irreverent, funny and kind in real life. In the early 90s, when I was already married, I told my husband that our love is safe save for maybe when I meet Alan Alda. But my husband was used to my fictitious weapons so he just dismissed my musings.

Come to think of it, outside of watching those plays and reading Alda’s books (he eventually became a spokesperson for Scientific American and also teaches scientists at MIT how to communicate their science so it now makes sense why I have always liked him), I have never really tried to find out anything else about him. Most fans apparently just do that — admire at a distance. But there is a small portion who obsess about their favorite celebrities, deeply identifying with the real lives of these celebrities making them (fans) easy prey to depression or mania. The term “celebrity worship” has been used to describe this kind of obsession. It is a real imbalance in one’s wirings that it can send you to a psychiatric session or to celebrities who end up filing restraining orders against you.

But why do we become fans in the first place? Since it is admittedly common behavior, then we would have inherited it from our ancestors. That means that being a fan is in our genes — in the wiring of our brain cells. If this has been passed on, then being a fan must have been behavior that is useful to our survival. Scientists agree that being a fan allows us to identify with “celebrities” so that we can see what makes them seem to be ahead of everyone else. Then we can perhaps learn how to adapt those traits in our own lives which could help us also get ahead. Also, knowing who’s who equips one with a mental map to navigate the social scene which is helpful in survival or even getting ahead. I can now see why having these cues were certainly useful to have.

But further probes by science also consider the big role that both traditional and online media play in influencing whom we consider to be worthy of “celebrity” status. I grew up under restricted media — with only TV and radio and our parents strictly monitored what we watched and listened to and when. My hero came out of that milieu. And somehow, for me it was Hawkeye Pierce as early as nine years old.

Scientists say that the kind of fan we are could go from being passive to being well, a stalker. It is not an either/or but more like a spectrum where your simple admiration could, given certain conditions, lead to obsession. So sometimes, a useful trait could turn on you. But for the most part, “fanship” is a joyful phenomenon that helps us celebrate achievements. What are you a fan of?

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For comments, e-mail dererumnaturastar@hotmail.com.

ALAN ALDA ALDA BRAIN BUT I FAN HAWKEYE PIERCE MOBILE ARMY SURGICAL HOSPITAL NORTH KOREA SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
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