Stage fright can be crippling. No matter how much you practice and perfect your art, the mere act of stepping into the spotlight can have a disastrous effect on your performance. Why is it that, just when you need to give it your best, the doubt sets in, your fingers turn to bananas and your body refuses to comply? Now, researchers in Britain have identified the brain network system that causes us to fumble what should be our finest hour.
Anyone who has been near a stage, a podium or a sporting arena knows that when all eyes are turned their way, simple things get a little (or sometimes a lot) more difficult — the body can just seem to have that extra bit of difficulty getting things done. Previous research has shown that, no matter how experienced the performer, the extra stress means people tend to exert more force when they know they are being watched critically. Pianists, for example, unconsciously hit keys harder when they are playing in front of an audience compared to when they play alone.
A team based at the University of Sussex and Brighton and Sussex Medical School have pinpointed the brain network system that causes people to fumble their performance when they're actually trying their hardest not to do so. Dr Michiko Yoshie and her colleagues used functional magnetic resonance neuroimaging (fMRI) to pinpoint the brain area that causes the performance mishaps. Unlike a regular MRI, which simply takes an image of the physical brain, fMRI can help monitor brain activity by showing changes in the flow of blood, which are known to be associated with changes in neural activity.
The new study — which was published in the journal Scientific Reports — monitored the brain activity of participants while they took part in an exercise which required them to grip an object with a precise and constant force. While they were doing this, they were shown video footage of two people who appeared to be observing and evaluating their performance. They were then asked to repeat the task but this time were shown two people who seemed to be checking the activity of another participant. After the study, participants said they had felt more anxious when they were being "watched" and the results showed that they had exerted more pressure during this part of the study.
The researchers say the fMRI scans show how the area of the brain which helps control fine sensory-motor functions — the inferior parietal cortex (IPC) — becomes "deactivated" when we know we are being watched. The IPC works in conjunction with another — the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) — to form what neuroscientists call the action-observation network (AON). This network is involved in the mental processes by which we infer what another person is thinking, based on body language, facial expressions and the direction of gaze.
It's this perception of observation by others that can either help us succeed or trip us up. The pSTS conveys the information about the outside world to the IPC which then sends out corresponding signals to control motor actions. If we sense our audience wants us to do well, we perform well. Unfortunately, if we pick up (or imagine) negative cues, the IPC pulls the plug, the body becomes uncoordinated and the performance falls apart. "We realized that AON might also be related to performance anxiety," Yoshie says, "because when being scrutinized, we tend to care about how the audience is feeling about us and our performance."
Although, for those with extreme performance anxiety, brain stimulation techniques such as the trans-cranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) are available as well as various types of neurofeedback training, which can help people to learn how to control their own brain activity, the answer for many performers may not be quite so radical. "It's important to believe that the audience is supporting you and wishing for your successful performance," Yoshie says. "To strengthen such belief, you should sometimes have opportunities to perform in front of your supporters. For example, before an actual public performance, a musician could perform in front of his/her family and close friends and receive a lot of applause. Such experience would help you to induce a desirable activation pattern in your brain and boost self-confidence."