Listen to this Brain Science Podcast (published by Dr. Virginia Campbell) for a great interview with Sian Beilock, author of “Choke,” a book about why people crash under pressure. They talk mostly about sports, doctors and business speeches, but the analogy to comedy is so obvious that I haven’t taken much effort to convert it myself. I’ve cultivated some particularly relevant excerpts below, I’ll do a more thorough write up on it or talk about it in an upcoming podcast I’m sure, but I couldn’t let this go without sharing, it’s just great stuff. Listen to the podcast at the link above or read the full pdf here. If you have any specific questions, feel free to ask me them and I’ll see what I can do about finding the answers. All quotes are by Dr. Beilock.
One of the ways I talk about choking, in general, is that we essentially have a malfunction of the prefrontal cortex. This is the front part of your brain that sits right over your eyes, and it’s really the seat of our thinking and reasoning ability. And in these stressful situations, what we’ve shown is that people often have thoughts or worries about the situation and its consequences, and this essentially uses up important resources—our ability to think, attend on the fly—and essentially causes people to do a couple different things.
One is they don’t have as much cognitive horsepower—I talk about it’s something that’s often talked about as working memory. This is our ability to attend to some information and ignore others. They don’t have as much of this attention to devote to the task, and so, this can be really detrimental if people are performing an activity that requires lots of attentional control—say, doing a math problem, or responding to questions on the spot (Mike’s Note: or riffing or remembering the details of a joke). But another thing that happens is that, because people are worried, they become really self-conscious; they want to have a perfect performance. And this leads them to focus really hard on elements of what they’re doing that should just be left outside conscious awareness.
So, it’s sort of this double whammy that occurs. You have less of this important cognitive horsepower you need to focus on tasks that require a lot of it, but you’re also devoting some of these resources to sort of the step-by-step details of what you’re doing, in a way that’s really counterproductive.
The frontal lobes develop very slowly. They don’t stop developing well into the 20’s, and teenagers are often characterized by making poor decisions, poor impulse control, not able to keep their emotions at bay. And one of the big functions of the frontal lobes is to regulate and control some of the emotional areas of the brain, to control our emotional reactions. So, one of the reasons teenagers tend to be poor at this is because they don’t essentially have the brain mechanisms yet to do it.
And, as I talked about before, under stress, when our working memory is zapped, we essentially don’t have this control as adults. So, it’s often like we revert back to our teenage brain. In essence, we often let our emotions get the best of us; we’re not good at attending to what we want to and ignoring others, which can lead us to be distracted by worries on a test, and also start perseverating on what our wrist is doing when we’re just trying to get the shot off in the important game.
It’s actually to sit for about 10 minutes before you take an important test—or this can apply to giving a speech, a business meeting, or even getting ready for that sporting event—and to write about your thoughts and feelings about what’s about to happen. There’s research out there that we borrowed from clinical psychology literature, showing that getting people to write down their thoughts and worries serves as a download. It frees them from recursively ruminating on what they’re thinking about. And, in essence, it’s been shown to free up working memory. So, we showed that students who wrote about their thoughts and feelings before they took a really important test—just for 10 minutes before they took the test—scored much higher than students who didn’t write about their thoughts and feelings; maybe they wrote about something they did the day before, or even what they thought might not be on the test. The idea is that offloading your worries essentially frees up working memory, so that it’s not distracted by these worries when you’re actually taking the test.
One of the things I talk about in the book is that it’s practice under pressure that makes perfect. Our ability to execute an activity or a skill when no one is watching is great, but when we want to really ace that exam, that speech, interview, or that game, when the stress is on, we have to get used to the stress that we’re going to feel. The great thing is that our brains and bodies are great at learning by analogy.
There’s research showing that just getting used to a little bit of simulated pressure gets us ready for that real do-or-die event. And this is very similar to what happens in the military; the FBI does it. They simulate the types of situations that their officers or soldiers are actually going to face when they get into the real important situation. Of course, you can’t mimic it completely, but just getting used to a little bit of it adapts you in such a way that when the real stress comes you’re ready to perform at your best.
meditation has been shown to train our ability to perform at our best in stressful situations…. Essentially one of the things that meditation does is it gives us a greater ability to let go of information—to not perseverate on it. And that’s one of the things that you need to do in these testing situations, for example, is not perseverate on these worries, but essentially put them aside so you can focus your attention on the important information at hand. Meditation seems to help people bolster those abilities.
There are a lot of other things that can be used in that moment. So, writing down the intermediate steps of a problem, not trying to do it all in your head, gives a break to your working memory, so that you aren’t zapped in that stressful situation.
There is work showing that playing video games can be a way of brain training. It can hone some of the visual, perceptual, and even working memory type skills that are so important. Of course, it depends on what video game kids are playing, and for how long they play them. The work that’s shown some of the benefits, it’s often playing for 10 hours a week, or 10 hours over a long period of time. So, there’s probably some diminishing returns if you’re always stuck to your computer
And finally, A short sidebar on Stereotype Threat (relevant if you’re a woman, minority or open mic’er)
The really interesting thing about this phenomenon is that the person who’s aware of the stereotype doesn’t have to endorse the stereotype; they just have to know that someone else believes it. And so, it can be really problematic, because it turns out that just being aware that people hold stereotypes about how you should perform can lead you to fail, even if you don’t endorse them.
… There’s work showing that just checking off your race, if you’re African-American, before you take a standardized test like the SAT or GRE, leads to substantially worse performance than if you hadn’t checked off your race beforehand. And the same thing happens for women in taking the quantitative section of the SAT. Just checking off their gender before they take this math portion of the SAT will lead them to perform worse than if they hadn’t done that.
if you are feeling stereotyped (ladies) about how you should perform, or you’re aware that there are these issues out there, taking a couple of minutes to write about all the things you’re good at—to affirm yourself—can actually be enough to take you in a different direction,to give you a positive outlook that changes, essentially, how the brain is functioning to perform at one’s best.