April 22, 2022 – Pat Sajak knows something brain researchers have spent decades confirming: Anyone can choke under pressure.
You blank on a movie title. You freeze at a pop question. You forget – momentarily – the name of someone you’ve known for 30 years.
If you’re lucky, it’s in front of a close friend or small group.
At least you don’t do it in front of 8 million people, as happened this year on Wheel of Fortune. A seemingly simple puzzle stumped two players, who of course faced ridicule online.
“These are good people in a bad situation under a kind of stress that you can’t begin to appreciate from the comfort of your couch,” Sajak tweeted in their defense.
But you won’t find brain researchers trolling the poor players. They understand.
Stress messes with your body and head – your golf swing and your fifth and sixth Wordle guesses. Physical and mental tasks you normally perform with ease become challenging under pressure, which comes from people watching, big rewards (or losses) at stake, fear of judgment, or even your own memories. “We worry about the consequences, what others will think of us, what we might lose,” says Sian Beilock, PhD, the president of Barnard College of Columbia University and a cognitive scientist. “And that worry actually derails our ability to focus.”
Beilock and brain researchers worldwide give test subjects tasks in the lab – math problems, word games, golf putting – and compare brain activity when the same tasks are done under stress (with monetary rewards, say, or a time limit, or even physical discomfort).
To over-simplify, your prefrontal cortex gets cluttered. That’s the part of your brain that holds working memory, the information you need for the task at hand.
“Working memory is our cognitive horsepower,” says Beilock, who wrote the book Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. “It’s our ability to focus on what we want and get rid of what we don’t.”
Under stress, working memory is disrupted by outside stuff – like an audience, time pressure, or potential embarrassment. All that clutter interferes with the prefrontal cortex’s communication with the rest of the brain. “We actually disrupt the connections in our brain, our ability to string information together and pull out important pieces,” Beilock says. “And we perform worse.”
One of her early studies showed that students with large working-memory capacity predict