Going for Gold - The New Neuroscience of "Choking"


Going for Gold - The New Neuroscience of "Choking"
Sport enthusiasts know about choking--so do couples in relationships. Use STP prevention strategies.

A team of neuroscientists in London used MRI studies to gain insight into choking. They found that as people got excited about potential rewards, activity tended to increase in a subcortical brain region (ventral striatum) that is dense with dopamine neurons. However, as the participants actually began playing the video game (albeit inside a brain scanner), activity in the ventral striatum changed. The brain activity became inversely related to the magnitude of the reward, i.e., larger incentives led to less striatum activity. And decreased activity led to decreased performance.

Loss aversion is a well-documented phenomenon: People feel worse over a loss than they feel good about a gain. For example, the pleasure of winning $1000 is less intense than the pain of losing the same amount. Although there were no actual “losses” in the London experiment (e.g., participants were never punished for failure), the researchers theorized that the act of playing the game led the participants to count chickens that were not yet hatched and to think about wins that had not been achieved. Because of that, the ventral striatum that focuses on rewards showed less activity as the brain worried about possible failures. In fact, the most loss-adverse participants showed the largest drop in performance when the rewards were increased.


This suggests that some individuals fall apart (“choke”) under the pressure of the moment because they care too much. They want to success and want to win so desperately that they unravel. The activity’s pleasure has vanished. What remains is the fear of failure, of losing, which can trigger choking. This means that relationships may be vulnerable to choking as well.

“I didn’t do it!” the voice shouted when I answered the phone. “No--I mean, I did do it!”

Recognizing Bryan’s distinctive accent I laughed and asked, “Which is it?”

“It’s BOTH!” he shouted. “I didn’t choke and we won.”

“Excellent,” I said. “What made the difference?”

“I stopped thinking about failure. Every time such a thought crossed my brain I repeated my cue phrase--you know, the STP strategy.” There was a pause. “Would you like to see a game? Shall I send you a ticket?”

My answer was yes and yes. Bryan was going for gold. So can you.

Winning is a habit.
Watch your thoughts, they become your beliefs.
Watch your beliefs, they become your words.
Watch your words, they become your actions.
Watch your actions, they become your habits.
Watch your habits, they become your character
.  --Vince Lombardi

This article was originally published at . Reprinted with permission.
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