A recent study by Dr. Michiko Yoshie, Prof. Hugo Critchley, Dr. Neil Harrison, and Dr Yoko Nagai has pinpointed the brain area that is responsible for ‘choking’ or ‘bottling.’ Fundamentally, what they’ve identified is the cause for the differences between potential performance and actual performance.

In their 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 that they felt more anxious when they believed they were being observed. Under this condition, they gripped the object harder without realising it.

Scan results showed that an area of the brain that helps us to control our fine sensorimotor functions, the inferior parietal cortex (IPC), became deactivated when people felt they were being observed.

They suspect that this part of the brain works in conjunction with the posterior superior temporal sulcus (PSTS), the part of the brain that deals with phonological processing and speech comprehension . This process results in what the neuroscientists refer to as the ‘action-observation network’.

The PSTS works with the IPC, which then communicates the correct (assumed correct) response from ones physicality. However, if we pick up negativity, our IPC is deactivated and our performance suffers. “We realised that AON might also be related to performance anxiety because when being scrutinised, we tend to care about how the audience is feeling about us and our performance” Dr Yoshie states.

Teaching implications.

While it is unlikely many teachers want any of their students to fail, it may be difficult for some teachers to root for all students, all of the time. Some teachers may themselves have an insecure attachment which they then project outwardly to the students. I think this evidence places teacher psychology as another key area for training and development. Without security in our own being, it is highly unlikely that we will create the satisfactory conditions to support children.

That is not to say that all teachers need counselling, or performance psychologists (as used in elite sport) but that strict clear procedures around behaviour and teacher happiness have to be placed high up on the list of needs for any school. Of course, we can all benefit from giving our psyche the same focus most of us give you our physical health, but that does not require a Dave Brailsford/Dr Steve Peters approach. It may simply involve writing down what makes us happy, and doing it more often. For those with real issues a therapist or simply giving themselves time to deal with this would obviously be the most appropriate approach.

As for the students, well there are now various types of neurofeedback training, which can help people to learn how to control their own brain activity. How effective these are I don’t know, but we do need to spend time helping students to process difficulties- especially with relationships and feelings of self-worth. Self-worth is formed socially and internally, Dr. Kristin Neff suggests that the best solution to creating self-worth in individuals is by focussing their attention on their self-improvement, and away from their comparative worth within the social setting. Again, I’m reminded of the importance of school culture (see my blog on ‘Growth mindset’ for that.) Creating a culture where success is a measure of development and not of position in the roster, is integral to self-worth, which has knock on effects of how we students see themselves, which has a knock on effect of how they see our interaction with them…..More importantly our culture informs how we respond to them, and their challenges.


Dr Yoshie also feels “you should sometimes have opportunities to perform in front of your supporters.” This may involve us sending successful work home to parents, or simply inviting a students friends who wait for them at the door in and saying, ‘come and read X’s story, it’s great/really funny/as good as anything in the library!’

This is not just fluff and nonsense, it has real impact. Yoshie states, “Such experience would help you to induce a desirable activation pattern in your brain and boost self-confidence.” Performing your ‘Speaking and Listening’ assessment in front of your friends is significantly more likely to produce the confidence required for the end performance.

Final thought.


Over the last few days we’ve undertaken several tasks and listen to talks which left me realising how vulnerable some children must feel. Of course I was aware of these issues before but the problems children face now are increasingly complex. Even communicating with a friend becomes a public performance on social media. Their worlds are a psychological minefield that I am certain I could not have handled at their age. On top of that the world is increasingly confusing, and concepts of fear and hatred are broadcast in HD 24 hours a day. Conversely, statistics tell us we live in the safest time of human history (a story for another day perhaps!) How we ‘bulletproof them against the tundra of turmoil they experience is an extremely complex task, but what is obvious to me now (and was known to me previously) is that nothing is achieved absent from our students self-perception.

I don’t know of any solution to the above- I don’t feel that a ‘friendly’ or ‘chummy’ approach is appropriate, nor do I feel it would be effective. However, I am reminded that as adults we have had an awful lot practise at ‘soldiering on’ and rationalising before we react. I know I will not lower my expectations of students behaviour, but I do think I will smile more and perhaps I will explicitly state that I became a teacher because I want to see others succeed in English. Those aren’t complex changes, but they may well have far reaching impact. I will need to give serious thought to how I support practising ‘soldiering on’ and rationalising….Challenge is always high in my classroom, but dropping students in ‘the pit’ and supporting them out does not deal with psychology of that process.

Based on the study, ‘Why I tense up when you watch me:  Inferior parietal cortex mediates an audience’s influence on motor performance’, by Michiko Yoshie, Yoko Nagai, Hugo Critchley and Neil Harrison, is published in Scientific Reports on 20 January 2016 http://www.nature.com/articles/srep19305

Don’t know a lot about Dr Neff- only her TED talk- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvtZBUSplr4 and this – https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-power-self-compassion/201106/why-self-compassion-may-be-the-antidote-narcissism