At the turn of the 20th century, Ivan Pavlov was busy studying dogs, tracking their gastric functions in order to understand how digestive glands and organs operated in human bodies. Amid this research in his lab in St. Petersburg, Russia, Pavlov stumbled upon a curious, but potentially groundbreaking, physiological pattern: The dogs had originally drooled when they received food, but now they were drooling over just the presence of the people who fed them.
This became the first thread in Pavlov’s theory that the brain could be trained, through association, to react to random stimuli (in his case, a ringing bell) as if it were a natural response (drooling over tasty food). Pavlov would be proud to know that more than a century later, his earliest findings are being upheld by other experiments in modern life — including via the football-obsessed dudes who have a knee-jerk response every time they hear the triumphant theme of Monday Night Football floating into their consciousness.
The premise is simple: You find a man who’s had their brains addled by a lifetime of seeing monstrous athletes jostle over possession of a small brown ball, wait until he’s stuck in the purgatory known as the early offseason, and the spring the trap: Play the MNF theme, watch for Pavlovian perking-up and wait for him to realize the cruel lie. You can see the joy glimmer in their eyes as the moment arises: I swore I heard trumpets. Isn’t Patrick Mahomes playing tonight? And then, despair. Confusion. Heartache. Betrayal.
We’ve seen this reaction before: It’s not just classical conditioning, it’s basically a damn drug addiction. The act of watching high-octane sports makes us crave a certain kind of physical and mental rise, and few sports capture the explosive mix of puzzle-esque complexity and brute physical violence like American football. And by nature of its much shorter season, a hit of football feels inherently more valuable than basketball and baseball, which is on TV basically every day of the week. Everything about football — the spectacle, the money, its prominence in the zeitgeist, the inescapable, dramatized stakes around sacrifice and legacy — makes it feel important to our lizard brains.
Add in the fact that Monday Night Football is, in and of itself, a special treat during football season — the last gasp of the weekly schedule, broadcast in singular fashion during primetime hours — and no wonder men are acting like hungry dogs when they hear the dulcet brass tones of British composer Johnny Pearson’s famous “Heavy Action” theme.
Pavlovian responses and its cousin, Proustian memories, can be triggered by all manner of things: The whiff of a certain kind of perfume, the sound of the ice cream truck, an old jingle from a Saturday-morning commercial. But as winter fades to spring, football fans all over America are grappling with the existentialism of another six months without a big hit of culturally sanctioned male violence. To troll men with the MNF theme is to honor this uncertain season, and witness as our brains struggle to want what it cannot have.