on April 23, 2012
INTRODUCTION: It has happened to everyone. We bomb a test, blow an interview, or miss the game-winning shot. Whether it is in academics, a profession, or athletics, we have all had a time when we blundered when it mattered most. It is the classic choke. Sian Beilock is an associate professor of Psychology at the University of Chicago and an expert on performance and brain activity. In her book Choke, she provides a fascinating analysis of what the brain reveals about why we crack under pressure and how we can prevent it from happening. This book is a must read for those who aspire to be successful in any aspect of life.
SUMMARY: To start, Beilock defines choking as a response to a perceived stressor that results in suboptimal performance. Essentially, it is when one does not live up to expectations given their talent level and performs worse than they have done in the past. The goal of the book is to explain why, when, and how failure under pressure happens. Much of the answer lies in the differentiation between procedural memory and explicit memory. Procedural memory consists of things that you do outside of conscious awareness and explicit memory is your ability to consciously think and reason on the spot.
Beilock discusses how explicit memory involves working-memory, or the ability to hold information in short-term memory while doing something else at the same time. Working-memory and conscious control are activated in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is used in problem solving and decision making situations. Often when in a stressful situation, the prefrontal cortex malfunctions. It stops communicating with other brain areas needed for cognitive success, causing the choke to begin.
According to Beilock, the problem starts when the pressure is on and one starts to worry. Worrying takes over the area of the prefrontal cortex that is usually occupied by working-memory. So instead of having a working-memory that is focused on a specific task, worrying and distractions capture working-memory and there is less brainpower left to focus on what we are doing. For example, in the school setting, worrying sometimes takes over the prefrontal cortex before a big test like the ACT. Worry about fulfilling expectations and the future uses up the majority of the prefrontal cortex, leaving little room for working-memory to focus on the test. As a result, lack of thinking and decision making skill leads to performance that is not up to par. Therefore, according to the author, standardized tests are not always the best way to analyze intelligence because the depletion of performance is due to choking under pressure, not the lack of skill itself.
Also while under pressure, we can start to think too much about what we are doing. Instead of working-memory not working enough, it starts to take too much control in the prefrontal cortex and causes a mess up. Beilock calls this paralysis by analysis. Paralysis by analysis happens most often during activities that can be done out of unconscious thought and is common in sports and music. For example, while shooting a free throw during the pressure of a tight game, working-memory taking over the prefrontal cortex might cause you to think too much about the angle of your elbow, extension of arm, and overall form of the shot instead of going through a fluid motion. The shot is an act that you have perfected so greatly that you usually do it without even thinking. However, overthinking can cause you to miss the shot. While playing the violin, you might start to think about your technique and the notes instead of just playing. The basal ganglia and motor system, which activate procedural memory and control tasks performed on autopilot, will be suppressed because of over analyzing an act that usually just comes natural. Once again, this causes one to mess up and choke. Therefore, Beilock argues that athletes and musicians perform better outside of the prefrontal cortex and working memory.
There are so many things that cause us to fail under pressure. One of the most common stressors is stereotypes: women can't do math, white men can't jump, or African Americans are less intelligent. The author states that just the mention of a stereotype is enough for people to begin self-doubt, which uses up valuable resources in the brain which could be used to perform the main task. But there is hope! The tendency to choke is reversible and there are tactics to overcome it.
Beilock provides evidence that the most effective way to prevent choking is practicing under pressure. Practicing a speech in front of friends, timing yourself while studying before an exam, or putting with money on the line will simulate the pressures of real situations. Practicing under stress can exercise procedural memory, increase grey matter, and enlarge the size of the corpus callosum for greater coherence between the right and left hemispheres. Overall communication between brain cells will be improved by practice. As to preventing the onset of stress due to stereotypes, one can reaffirm self-worth, gain confidence, and remember that seeing is believing. Beilock exemplifies the Obama Effect, which shows that seeing examples of people defying stereotypes helps you believe that you will not fall into the same stereotype. In the end, the prevention of choking is all about the balance of brain systems and the ability to shut out negative thoughts so that a maximum amount of cognitive influence can be put into the task at hand.
EVALUATION: As a student athlete, I have always wondered why people choke at times of pressure no matter how much they have prepared for the situation. It is interesting that the physiology of the brain can affect our success and failure. It is even more superb that we can do things to help ourselves control our performance more effectively. For me, the most intriguing aspect of the book is the idea that sometimes less thinking is more. It is sometimes better to stop thinking about what I'm doing and simply just do it (Nike!).
Overall, the style of this book is easy to understand and not too complex for the average reader. Main points and quotations are taken out of the text and put in bold to emphasize the importance of certain information. There are even a few diagrams that show what part of the brain is being discussed. Engaging stories of famous and amateur athletes are used to make brain functioning understandable. Beilock uses situations that are relatable as well. She provides techniques that are integral to preventing choking that are applicable to basically everyone. Overall, the book gives confidence and hope to those who consider themselves prone to choking.
Despite all of the good things about Choke, I was slightly disappointed when it got a little repetitive. About half way through the book, Beilock transitioned from discussing the science behind choking and focused more on techniques to help prevent choking. At this point, it was kind of rough to keep reading because I felt like she kept reemphasizing the same points over and over. I actually wish she had written more in detail about the physiology of the brain and how it works when we choke, rather than techniques to help you perform better (although this is very important). In a way, the book left me wanting more science!
REVIEW/SUMMARY: In Choke, Sian Beilock reveals information about how our brain functions when we choke under pressure and what we can do in order to prevent blundering. She gives essential insight on how we can get the best out of ourselves and be successful in any aspect of life.