Andy Murray 'Spaces Out' During The Wimbledon Final: The Neuroscience Of Being 'In The Zone'

Murray
Andy Murray of Britain kisses the Wimbledon winners trophy, but did he also have a temporary bout of stress-induced amnesia during the end of his tennis triumph in London? Reuters

Yesterday, Andy Murray became the first Brit to win the men's singles competition at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships in 77 years, but when asked to review the final moments of the match, he said that couldn't remember playing the championship point.

"I have no idea what happened. [crowd laughs]. I really don't know what happened. I don't know how long that last game was...I'm sorry...I was concentrating," remarked the newly minted champion.

Weird, right? It's a moment that he's been anticipating for this his entire life and suddenly his memory stops working.

If you watched the end of yesterday's tennis final, you must have noticed Andy Murrary's distress. Murray had an early lead in the final game, but his opponent Novak Djokovic had battled back and was threatening to extend the match. They had already battled for three grueling hours in the hot July sun, and Murray had a reputation for losing in clutch situations, especially in longer matches.

All of sudden, the countenance of Murray changed, and the stress on his face melted into a blank expression — a mixture of concentration and relaxation. He regained his composure and finished off the match.

It is likely that the combination of stress and concentration pushed Murray into "the zone". "Being in the zone" — or psychological flow — is a phenomenon often described by athletes and musicians, where their minds tune out of a situation and their bodies perform complicated routines, almost seemingly on their own.

According to a book by the leading expert on the topic, Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihaly of Claremont Graduate University, this mental state exists at the emotional nexus that runs between facing an insurmountable challenge and being overly skillful. If a task is too hard, then extra exertion and focus will be needed. In contrast, if the job is too easy, then the person will become bored and lack concentration.

Murray was pushed to his limits, but had also reached the Wimbledon final last year (and lost), so he was prepared for the strain of the moment. It was the perfect set up for entering the zone... but why did he suddenly lose his memory?

Stress, Catharsis, And Amnesia

Odds are his stress hormones kicked into gear. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are an essential part of our 'fight or flight' response, but high levels of these natural chemicals are thought to impair our ability to record, or consolidate, memories. (This can also happen when hormone levels are too low). In other words, Murray's mental capacity for storing the details of life events may have been temporarily off-line, which is known as dissociative or psychogenic amnesia.

In some cases, emotional stress can have the opposite effect and promote the formation of memories, but this is generally thought to occur with negative or upsetting experiences. This is most commonly seen with haunting memories that trouble patients with posttraumatic stress disorder.

Stress hormones may have impacted Murray's ability to recall recent events in another way, as short-term memory (STM) is also blocked by these natural chemicals. STM stores information on the order of seconds and is critical for arranging words into sentences. It's possible that Murray's high stress levels just temporarily stymied his verbal skills.

Andy Murray's Championship Speech (his bout of 'amnesia' happens at 2m48sec).

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