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Profile: Sian Beilock

  • Posted 10.24.12
  • NOVA scienceNOW

Whether sitting down for the SAT, or trying to make a crucial putt on the golf green, almost everyone has choked when stress is high. Sian Beilock, cognitive psychologist and former competitive athlete, is investigating what happens in the brain when you choke—and how you can overcome fear and maximize your brain’s performance.

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Launch Video Running Time: 10:04

Transcript

How Smart Can We Get?

PBS Airdate: October 24, 2012

DAVID POGUE: These kids are about to take an exam, just one of many in their lifetimes, and they're feeling the pressure.

RACHEL (Test Taker): It is one of the worst feelings in the world.

DAVID POGUE: American students take more than 100 million standardized tests a year.

(Test Taker): You start to panic. You start doubting yourself.

DAVID POGUE: But no matter how smart you are, sometimes even the brightest brains don't perform as they should.

LUKE (Test Taker): My stomach flips, and then I feel really sad.

DAVID POGUE: They choke under pressure.

(Test Taker): I usually freak out.

(Test Taker): Yeah.

DAVID POGUE: And it's not just in the classroom.

SIAN BEILOCK (University of Chicago): I think anyone can choke under pressure.

DAVID POGUE: We've all seen it happen, from American Idol…

(American Idol Contestant/Film Clip): (Singing) Remember everything that I told you…(forgets words)

SIMON COWELL (American Idol Judge/Film Clip): That's ironic.

DAVID POGUE: …to a spelling bee,…

(Spelling Bee Competitor): I, N, S, I,…

SIAN BEILOCK: All the great chokes have something in common: they've all failed to perform up to their best when the pressure is high.

Rick Perry in the Republican debates of 2011.

RICK PERRY (2011–2012 United States Presidential Candidate/Film Clip): And the, uh, what's the third one there? Let's see.

DAVID POGUE: …and, of course, the sports choke, like going for a crucial field goal that should be easy and missing.

Whether you're an athlete or just a kid sitting for the S.A.T., choking can be devastating.

SIAN BEILOCK: It's one thing to have skill or the knowledge to perform well, but it doesn't matter how much math you know, if you can never show it on the quantitative section of the S.A.T.

DAVID POGUE: But what if you could teach your brain not to choke?

That's the goal of cognitive scientist Sian Beilock. Sian is figuring out how to train your brain to perform at its best, even when the heat is on.

Sian learned about choking the hard way.

SIAN BEILOCK: Soccer, I think, was my one really true passion.

(Archival film clip) My name is Sian Beilock, and I'm a soccer goalkeeper.

DAVID POGUE: At 16, she was a star goalie in the Olympic Development Program. Then, one day, a national coach came to see her play.

SIAN BEILOCK: I knew he was there, and I knew that this might be my one shot.

An offensive player came down the right side of the field and took a shot at the near post, which is the post you're supposed to be able to save the ball from, and it went right under my arm and in the goal. It went all downhill from there, and that was it. I was out of consideration for the national team that year. You know, I had that one shot, and I failed.

DAVID POGUE: It was a crushing blow.

SIAN BEILOCK: I just felt totally defeated. All the hard work I'd put into getting to the place that I was getting had just vanished in the blink of an eye.

It was the middle of the game, and I wanted to walk off the field.

So, yeah, I choked.

DAVID POGUE: Soon after, Sian walked away from soccer. But when she went to college, she was determined to find out what had happened inside her brain on that fateful day. So she majored in cognitive science.

SIAN BEILOCK: One of the reasons I was really interested in cognitive science is that it seemed like it might be a window into trying to understand a little bit about how I performed. So, people always ask me if I do "me-search," right? And I think there's definitely a little bit of me-search to what I do.

DAVID POGUE: Sian wants to know what happens to our brain under pressure, and her research team has figured out the perfect recipe for high anxiety.

GERARDO RAMIREZ (University of Chicago): What we do is we have these students come in, and they do a block of math problems.

DAVID POGUE: They even make the math problems look strange, to throw the students off.

GERARDO RAMIREZ: And then we give them a series of instructions that are really designed to create a very stressful environment for them.

DAVID POGUE: They put money on the line and tell the students that a partner is depending on them to improve their score.

GERARDO RAMIREZ: But if you can't improve, then you won't get this additional money and neither will your partner.

At this point, the students are really freaking out. And then, to really make it a very, very stressful environment, we bring out a video camera and put it right next to them.

Do you see a red light?

DAVID POGUE: Then the students do a second block of problems.

SIAN BEILOCK: And it works. Most people, when they're in our stressful situations, really do feel pressure to perform at a high level. And as it happens, lots of people choke under that pressure.

GERARDO RAMIREZ: Usually, they choke about 11 to 12 percent below their initial block of problems.

DAVID POGUE: So what's happening when they choke? Only the scanner can tell.

SIAN BEILOCK: We put people in this M.R.I. machine. They're lying on their back, but they can see this computer screen, and they're actually performing problems.

DAVID POGUE: They use a controller to give their answers. Then Sian's team makes them sweat.

Laboratory Technician: Finally, during this next set of problems, we're going to be videotaping your performance.

DAVID POGUE: Sian's theory was that these stressors were messing with the patients' working memory.

It's a little different from short-term memory, which comes from the hippocampus.

SIAN BEILOCK: Working memory is your mental scratchpad that essentially allows you to work with whatever information is held in consciousness.

DAVID POGUE: And it involves the prefrontal cortex, which is part of the frontal lobe, just above our eyes.

SIAN BEILOCK: Our prefrontal cortex essentially allows us to do all those special things we can do as humans, whether it's hitting a tiny ball into a tiny hole or juggling lots of math problems in our head.

DAVID POGUE: Based on activity she saw in the scans of her stressed out subjects, Sian can infer communication between the prefrontal cortex and the emotional centers of the brain, like the amygdala. And when the emotional centers are overactive, they can prevent clear thinking.

SIAN BEILOCK: In these situations, when people fail, these worries tend to come online and co-opt those prefrontal resources that people would otherwise use to perform well.

DAVID POGUE: Sian's preliminary data suggests that in a choker's brain, the emotions cause a racket big enough to interrupt working memory.

But what about those lucky people who don't choke, who perform well under pressure? What's different about a non-choker's brain?

SIAN BEILOCK: It's almost as if the prefrontal cortex and those emotion centers of the brain uncouple or stop talking for a moment.

DAVID POGUE: For non-chokers, it's almost as though they temporarily put the conversation between these two parts of the brain on hold.

SIAN BEILOCK: People who are less likely to choke essentially show less crosstalk. There's less of an opportunity for these worries to seep in and impact performance. And we think that these are skills that can be taught.

DAVID POGUE: Sian had a theory she thought could have a huge impact, and she set out to prove it. She went where the stress was boiling over: a high school biology exam.

Just before the test started, Sian's team gave the kids an extra assignment.

GERARDO RAMIREZ: We came to the classrooms and asked all of the students to either write about their deepest thoughts and feelings or sit there for 10 minutes.

DAVID POGUE: Sian knew from other studies that depressed patients who wrote down their emotions in a journal could break the cycle of negative thinking. But would it work for anxious test-takers?

SIAN BEILOCK: And the idea is that, if we have people journal before this important test, we might be able to help them succeed.

DAVID POGUE: The students poured out their deepest worries onto paper. Then it was test time.

So how'd they do?

Students who just sat without writing anything, on average, got a B-minus, but the ones who wrote got, on average, a B-plus.

SIAN BEILOCK: We boosted these students' scores over half a grade point by just having them sit and write for 10 minutes about their thoughts and feelings about the upcoming high-stakes test.

DAVID POGUE: So what did the students write?

SIAN BEILOCK: (Reading) There's millions of butterflies in my stomach. Breathe, breathe, I'm telling myself.

GERARDO RAMIREZ: So he starts out talking about how worried he is, and towards the middle he says, "As I continue to think about this final, I relax significantly."

DAVID POGUE: For those students with high test anxiety, journaling was a silver bullet. But why does it work?

SIAN BEILOCK: When people are worrying up under stress, it's almost like a computer with too many programs open at once. Sometimes, everything crashes. And by writing down some of those worries, you're able to offload some of those programs, so you free up resources to perform at your best.

DAVID POGUE: Journaling may help kids show how smart they are when it matters most.

SIAN BEILOCK: You don't have to be an Olympic athlete or sitting for the S.A.T. to have these choking experiences. Whether you're interviewing for a job, or just—one of my favorite places, where I often choke—parallel parking in front of your spouse, some of the same processes can drive that underperformance. What my work shows is that it doesn't have to be an inevitable phenomenon and that we can learn from those poor performances.

DAVID POGUE: And what if she'd never choked?

SIAN BEILOCK: I've thought about this idea. Maybe, if I hadn't choked in front of the national coach, I would have gone on to play in the Olympics, but I'm happy with all the lessons I've learned from that experience, and I think I've been able to take some of them and use them in my new life pursuits.

I want my work to really push the bounds of what we're able to do, so that everyone can perform up to their potential.

DAVID POGUE: And Sian practices what she preaches. She journaled before this interview. So what did she write?

SIAN BEILOCK: So I wrote: "What a day. I'm exhausted, and I hope that doesn't make me sound incoherent. I need to just focus on the present, on today. Have fun with it and not let my thoughts or worries about tomorrow or the next day seep in."

DAVID POGUE: And did it help?

SIAN BEILOCK: Sure. Did I ace my interview? Then yes.

Credits

How Smart Can We Get?

HOST
David Pogue
WRITTEN, PRODUCED AND DIRECTED BY
Terri Randall

Sian Beilock Profile

WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY
Joshua Seftel
PRODUCED BY
Joshua Seftel & Tobey List

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The images of Einstein's brain are published in Falk, Lepore & Noe: 2012, The cerebral cortex of Albert Einstein: a description and preliminary analysis of unpublished photographs, Brain (doi #doi:10.1093/brain/aws295) and are reproduced here with permission from the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Silver Spring, MD.

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NOVA scienceNOW is a trademark of the WGBH Educational Foundation

NOVA scienceNOW is produced for WGBH/Boston

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0917517. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

© 2012 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved

Image

(Sian Beilock)
© WGBH Educational Foundation

Participants

Sian Beilock
University of Chicago
Gerardo Ramirez
Graduate Student

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