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Mindful : June 2015
Choking during pressure-packed performances is the worst. Sharon Begley tells us why we do it, and how to avoid it. Rick Perry and the 2004 New York Yankees a re kin- dred spirits. In a debate during the 2012 Republica n presidential prima r y race, the then-Texas governor shouted that, if elected, he would close three federal agencies: the depart- ments of commerce and energy and... Oops. For 50-plus agoniz- ing seconds, Perry choked, unable to come up with the third sacrificial lamb. Seven autumns before, the New York Yankees led their archrival, the Boston Red Sox, three games to none in the American League champion- ship series, and were ahead in the fourth game 4-3 . After the Yankees’ ace reliever walked the leadoff batter, Boston’s pinch runner stole second and scored on a single. The Bronx Bombers lost that game and the next four—the first team to win three games and blow the next four to lose a series. Yankees fans taunted the players by pretending to choke themselves. Whether in public speak- ing, sports, or high-stakes test-taking, even the best of us choke. Our brains and bodies Brain Freeze! seize up like old clocks with sand in the gears. Luckily, neurobiologists and psychol- ogists are fascinated by this excruciating-to-watch a nd even more painful to expe- rience phenomenon. Their resea rch shows that we choke under two main conditions: when worries distract us so much we fail to access our talents, or when stress causes us to overthink, sidelining areas of the brain underlying implicit skill and expertise. Choking, by definition, occurs in pressure situations, when we’re expending enor- mous mental effort and focus. Ordina rily a good thing, focus is also a too-much-of-a -good- thing thing. University of → 18 mindful June 2015 brain science Illustration by Sébastien Thibault Sharon Begley is the senior health and science correspondent at Reuters, author of Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, and coauthor with Richard Davidson of The Emotional Life of Your Brain.