Some fortunate people have more “working memory” than others. It’s as if they have an extra pair of hands available for mental juggling; extremely useful for doing arithmetic and similar tasks in your head. These folk with abundant working memory capacity also tend to fare well academically and in their careers. Little surprise that “brain training” games like Lumosity and Cogmed target working memory in pursuit of these knock-on benefits (though the evidence that the training brings such benefits is weak).
What is surprising is the discovery a number of years ago that mentally dextrous people with greater working memory capacity seem to be particularly susceptible to “brain freeze” or choking under pressure.
For a new study in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, researchers at the University of Chicago and Michigan State University attempted to find out more about why this happens. Their results suggest that actually it’s only a subgroup of high working memory people who have this problem and it’s because of their high distractibility. These high ability chokers or brain freeze victims are “typically reliant on their higher working memory resources for advanced problem solving” but their poor attentional control renders them easily distracted by anxiety, causing their usual mental deftness to break down when the pressure is on.
Jason Sattizahn and his colleagues recruited 83 participants aged 18-35, including 35 men, from areas near universities. First they tested the participants’ attention control abilities using the well-established Flanker Task: participants had to identify as quickly as possible the direction of central arrows that were either surrounded by congruent flankers (<<<<<) or incongruent flankers (<<><<). It’s a test of attention control because it takes mental concentration to ignore the flankers, especially on incongruent trials.
Next, the researchers tested the participants’ on some tricky mental arithmetic questions, both without any pressure and then under high pressure conditions in which there was a monetary incentive, peer pressure (poor performance would adversely affect another participant) and risk of public shaming (they were told their performance would be shared with professors and others).
Finally, the participants completed two tests of their working memory capacity: they had to solve a sequence of basic mathematical operations or sentence comprehension questions, with each one interspersed with presentation of a single letter on screen. At the end of each run of between three and seven trials, the participants had to try to recall the letters in the correct order.
The results were clear: high stakes pressure adversely affected the maths performance of participants with high working memory capacity, but did not affect the performance of participants with lower working memory capacity (replicating a phenomenon first identified in a paper published in 2005; pdf). What’s new here is the additional measure of attentional control. This showed that only high working memory participants with poor attentional control showed evidence of this mental performance choking under pressure.
What seems to be happening is that, under low pressure conditions, people with high working memory capacity make use of their extra pair of mental hands when performing arithmetic and similar tasks, deploying more sophisticated and demanding strategies that usually allow them to excel. When they are distracted by pressure – which is especially likely if they have poor attentional control – people with high working memory still try to rely on their usual cognitively demanding approach, but now their extra mental hands are tied, so they drop the balls, so to speak.
If this sounds like you – perhaps your brain works like lighting on your own but goes into meltdown when someone puts you on the spot at work – the good news is that the researchers have a few suggestions for how to protect yourself from choking under pressure. Sattizahn and his colleagues suggest two strategies: either reduce the distracting anxiety you experience under pressure, for example by using expressive writing to reflect on a challenge that you know is coming up; or boost your attention control skills, for instance by practising mindfulness or simply remembering to take time out to walk in nature, which is known to refresh our powers of concentration.
I propose a third, lazier approach: next time you suffer a potentially embarrassing bout of brain freeze in front of friends or colleagues, simply point them to this article and explain: thanks to your impressive working memory capacity you can be a little sensitive at times, would they please back off and allow your shy super brain the space that it needs.