Brain networks put performance mishaps in spotlight
As any X Factor contestant or learner driver knows, anxiety induced by being watched can be disastrous - but now scientists have identified the brain network system that causes us to slip up when we least want to.
Experts have been able to pinpoint the area of the brain that causes performance mishaps in an experiment using functional magnetic resonance neuroimaging (fMRI).
In the study, published in Scientific Reports, participants' brain activity was monitored while carrying out a task that required them to exert a precise amount of force when gripping an object.
Participants reported they felt more anxious when they believed they were being observed, and gripped the object harder without realising.
Scan results showed that an area of the brain that helps people control their fine sensorimotor functions - the inferior parietal cortex (IPC) - became deactivated when they felt they were being observed.
This part of the brain works with another region - the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) - to form what neuroscientists refer to as the action-observation network (AON).
The AON is involved in "mentalisation" processes by which people infer what another person is thinking based on their facial expressions and direction of gaze.
The pSTS sends this information to the IPC, which generates appropriate motor actions, according to research by neuroscientists at the University of Sussex's Sackler Centre for Consciousness and Brighton and Sussex Medical School.
If people feel their observer is willing them to succeed, they will perform well. But if negative signals are picked up, the IPC is deactivated and the performance falters.
Dr Michiko Yoshie said: "It's important to believe that the audience is supporting you and wishing for your successful performance. 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 or her family and close friends and receive a lot of applause. Such experience would help to induce a desirable activation pattern in your brain and boost self-confidence."