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« Getting started in Small Business IT | Main | Adapt: Why success always starts with failure »

Choke: Using the secrets of your brain to succeed when it matters most

3.5 out of 5 stars.

Sian Beilock, Melbourne University Press, 2011

What a boon the MRI has been to psycho-social research. Neuroscience has grabbed brain imaging by the throat over the last two decades. The result has been a plethora of books explaining why we do what we do.

Choke is such a book. Like others in the genre, it is pretty much a corroborative exercise. A lot of research simply states the obvious like, for example, we can freeze under stress.

What Choke does is give us the science about why we freeze. It provides a platform for formulating ideas for behavior modification.

There is also a bit of myth-busting along the way. Various studies carried out by Beilock and her colleagues show that the smartest people in the room don’t always come up with the best solutions, nor excel at the more complicated tests.

The reason for this is their propensity to tackle the problem using the most complicated route.

Working memory (the amount of brain power we have available to manage lots of information) gets taxed by the requirements of the more complicated process. That leaves it with too little horsepower to notice other, often more efficient, ways of addressing the problem.

The good news here is for those of us who are more easily distracted. Working memory manages our inhibition so that extraneous information isn’t allowed in when the brain is highly focused on a complex problem.

But if you are easily distracted, you are more likely to see the other answers that are out there. Often, distracted people are quicker and more practical in spotting solutions.

Various outcomes of research in this area show that smart people often get better results when they collaborate with dumber people. Often, it’s the dumber party that sparks the better idea. That’s something we could all remember when working in teams.

High achievers also tend to go for a “no excuses” view of themselves if they get it wrong. They are harder on themselves.

This only leads to more stress, which leaves even less mental horsepower to handle the task at hand. This is one reason, says Beilock, why the smartest people often “choke”.

There’s plenty more in this book, but you will know a lot of it intuitively – like practicing in high stress conditions will help. Still, there are useful reminders of how to handle common situations.

If you already have a process down pat, don’t dwell on it at the time. Golfers will recognise this. Don’t start thinking about your stroke. Distract your mind with something else and take the shot. Stay fluid and avoid over-thinking. If you are presenting and worried about your lines, don’t memorise the whole thing, just put together an easily memorised list of the five key points.

This is not the best book to emerge out of the latest neuro-scientific research. It occasionally seems to lapse into polemics in areas like race and gender.

Several chapters make statements with anecdotal rather than empirical evidence, and you are unlikely to come away from reading it choke-free.

You will, however, understand how it happens and you’ll have a few strategies up your sleeve to handle it. As long as you’re working memory doesn’t freeze up on you first.

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