Whether you are sitting for the SAT, interviewing for a job, or about to give a wedding toast you have memorized to perfection, chances are you will experience a similar set of brain and body reactions. Under pressure, your heart rate goes up, your adrenaline kicks in, and your minds start to race - often with worries.
When the worries start, if you are doing something that demands a heavy dose of working-memory (say, solving a difficult test problem or reasoning through a tough on-the-spot question from a prospective boss), you performance can suffer. Working-memory is our mental scratchpad that allows us to "work" with the information stuck in consciousness. Under pressure, worries flood the brain so there is not enough working-memory (a.k.a. cognitive horsepower) to go around.
But, worries are not the only reason people choke under pressure (or perform more poorly than expected given their ability when the stress is on). Many highly practiced activities - ranging from a well-learned golf putt to a memorized speech - don't draw heavily on the brain power that worries co-opt. Rather, these activities are flubbed because, when the stakes are high, people often try to control what they are doing, which can backfire. Bringing highly practiced routines back into consciousness disrupts them - paralysis by analysis.
As it happens, both of these types of failures have to do with the fact that, under pressure, the prefrontal cortex (and the working-memory housed there) stops working the way it should. This malfunction of the prefrontal cortex also wreaks havoc on our ability to control our emotions. A major component of working-memory is inhibition, which helps us keep what we want in mind and what we don't want out. It also helps us control our thoughts, emotions, and behavior. When the stress is on, our inhibition is one of the first things to go. When you lose your temper or say something you shouldn't in times of stress, it's often a sign that your prefrontal cortex isn't able to keep the emotional centers of your brain under wraps.
It's as if pressure-filled situations prompt us to regress back to our teenage years. The prefrontal cortex is still developing in adolescents so teenagers often have a hard time keeping the emotional areas of the brain in check. Under pressure, adults' brains tend to mimic their teenage counterparts.
As an example of the differences between adults and teens in non-pressure-filled situations, take a study conducted a few years ago. Young teens and adults (in their late 20's and 30's) were asked to look at pictures of emotional faces presented on a computer screen. When doing so, teens tended to exhibit greater activation in the amygdale than adults, along with orbitofrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex, part of the brain systems involved in fear and appraisal of emotional situations. Interestingly, when people were asked to switch their attention between an emotional component of the face (such as thinking about how the face makes them feel afraid) and a non-emotional feature (how far apart the eyes are spaced), the adults were much better at doing this. When needed, adults seem to be better able turn off their emotional appraisal brain areas or at least keep them in check in a way the teens are not able to do.1,2
However, under pressure, everything changes. The prefrontal cortex stops working the way it should, which can result in over-attention to performance, a lack of cognitive horsepower devoted to the task at hand, or an emotional outburst that seems more typical of a teenager. As teens grow older, the prefrontal cortex develops and people are better able to modulate their reactions. But, under stress, this control can go out the window.
Just think about French footballer Zinedine Zidane and his infamous head butt in the 2006 World Cup Finals. After Italian defender, Marco Materazzi, and he exchanged heated words, Zidane's prefrontal cortex was likely working hard to restrain an emotional outburst. But with the stress of the world championship on the line, this inhibition did not materialize and instead of walking away from Materazzi, Zidane rammed his head into Materazzi chest, sending Materazzi to the ground and Zidane from the game. Handling yourself appropriately under pressure involves recognizing when your prefrontal cortex is most likely to resemble that of a teenage brain and applying effective techniques to deal with the regression.
For a review of these techniques, check out my book CHOKE. In stores now!
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2Monk, C.S., McClure, E.B., Nelson, E.E., et al. (2003). Adolescent immaturity in attention-related brain engagement to emotional facial expressions. NeuroImage, 20, 420-8.