Under the Hood

Performance Anxiety: The Part Of Your Brain That Makes You Stumble In Front Of An Audience

Performance anxiety
If you're anxious an audience wants you to perform well, you will, finds a new study. Zoltán Vörös, CC BY 2.0

Do you perform better or worse in front of an audience? The mere idea of standing on a stage or in the middle of sports arenas is enough to make us anxious, which is curious considering those people who take center stage are there as a result of hours of practice and skill training. Why would audiences suddenly make them trip up? The answer lies in the brain, according to a new study published in Scientific Reports.

Researchers from the Brighton and Sussex Medical School in the UK cite there is "empirical evidence" suggesting an audience can either be facilitative or detrimental, depending on certain cues, like task demands, performance context, and personality traits. Skilled motor performance — musicians, athletes, and anyone behind the wheel — can improve well-learned tasks, such as running and weightlifting. But when looking at more complex tasks, such as playing piano, performance quality seems to be better when the pianist is alone compared to playing in front of an evaluative audience.

"Although such social effects on motor control are well-documented, the central neural mechanisms through which the presence of observers increases force output have not previously been studied," the researchers wrote.

So to address this, researchers developed a simple motor tasked based on previous pinch-and-power grip tasks designed to "capture subtle changes in tonic muscle tension evoked by the presence of an evaluative audience." Twenty-one individuals were recruited through the university’s psychology database to complete two levels of the task while getting a functional MRI: the first was to grip a thermometer to match the target grip force (5 to 10 percent of their maximal contraction) for 5 seconds. Participants were then asked to maintain this target force for 15 seconds while watching a video of two judges, both of whom appeared to be closely evaluating their own task (observed condition) or another participant’s task (unobserved condition).

Researchers predicted the observed condition would make participants mildly anxious, simply because this has been true in the past. But why conduct the study in an MRI environment?

"When the presence of evaluative observers influences our motor behavior, visual information relating to the feelings and intentions of these individuals (e.g., facial expressions, direction of gaze) first needs to be processed in the brain," researchers wrote. This occurs in the action-observation network (AON). "Previous studies both in monkeys and humans have identified the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) as a key neural substrate for social perception based on visual cue."

The results of their own study showed social evaluation, which is when the judges appeared to be observing their task, led to higher self-rated anxiety compared to the unobserved condition. Participants unknowingly gripped the thermometer harder when they thought they were being watched, their MRIs revealing decreased activity in the inferior parietal cortex (IPC). This part of the brain works with the pSTS, and the two together form the AON.

Here's how it was simplified by the study’s press release: If people feel their observer wants them to do well, they will perform well; these are positive social cues. But if they pick up negative cues, then the IPC is deactivated and the "performance falls apart."

"We realized that AON might also be related to performance anxiety because when being scrutinized, we tend to care about how the audience is feeling about us and our performance," said lead study author Dr. MichikoYoshie, of the psychiatry department at Brighton and the Human Informatics Research Institute in Japan.

Being anxious and having an anxiety disorder are two different things, Dr. Sanjay Gupta explained in a column for Everyday Health. It’s normal to feel anxious or worry once in a while, but when that anxiety starts to impact work, personal relationships, and health, it’s a sign there’s something more serious going on. Anxiety disorders result when "people have anxiety that mounts to such an intensity […] they’re no longer able to cope with it."

"It's important to believe that the audience is supporting you and wishing for your successful performance," Yoshie said.

For those with extreme performance anxiety, Yoshie added there has been substantial advancement in brain stimulation techniques that help people activate desired behavior and neurofeedback training for controlling brain activity. 

And, she said, if you simply want to strengthen the belief your audience has come out to support you, which is of course a positive cue, then practice performing in public or with close friends and family — basically anywhere you could receive a lot of applause. This induces "a desirable activation pattern in your brain" and ultimately helps boost self-confidence.

Source: Yoshie M, Nagai Y, Critchley HD, Harrison NA. Why I tense up when you watch me: Inferior parietal cortex mediates an audience’s influence on motor performance. Scientific Reports. 2016.

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