Stage fright can cause even elite performers to fluff their lines and drop their balls, as tasks that may have been perfected during rehearsals suddenly become daunting under the pressure of the big stage. Fortunately, however, new research reveals that running a mild electric current through the parts of the brain that cause performance anxiety can help to eliminate these nervous errors.
Athletes, musicians, and other types of performers tend to rely on muscle memory in order to execute heavily rehearsed actions, allowing them to reproduce these motions automatically, without having to think. However, conscious thought is still required in order to select the appropriate pre-learned movements and build up combinations of action sequences. Appearing in the journal Nature Communications, the new study reveals how anxiety can impair this conscious decision-making process, resulting in a jittery performance.
Study participants were first trained to be able to rapidly press 10 buttons in a particular order, without making any mistakes. To achieve this, they were initially taught to execute just the first six steps, and later began practicing just the final four steps. Once both sections of the sequence had been perfected individually, participants then learned to combine them in order to execute the full 10-step task.
Rehearsals proved to be a piece of cake, but the researchers then turned up the heat by giving participants an electric shock whenever they made a mistake. Feeling the pressure, subjects quickly displayed a rapid decline in performance levels, with the majority of mistakes coming at the junction between the two pre-learned sequences, after the sixth step.
In other words, participants were able to press the first six and the final four buttons automatically, but were impaired by anxiety when having to think about how to combine these two action sequences.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers found an increase in activity in a brain region called the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) whenever these mistakes occurred, and therefore deduced the dACC must be responsible for performance impairment due to anxiety.
They then used a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to apply a current of 1 Hertz through the dACC for a period of five minutes, before asking participants to repeat the task. This had the effect of reducing activity in the dACC, resulting in significantly fewer performance mistakes being made.
While the happy participants were thus able to avoid being electrocuted, the study authors believe that the implications of this research could help professional performers in a wide array of different disciplines cut out any unforced errors.