Does it seem like your brain stops working like it should just when you need it most? Like before a test, or a speech, or a potentially difficult conversation? Well, there’s a scientific reason for that, and it’s all tied to your prefrontal cortex. Today and tomorrow, we’ll be exploring why the pressure to perform can derail your presentation. We’ll also figure out how to make sure that doesn’t happen.

What does the prefrontal cortex do?

All of the things you experience when you are under pressure to perform, like the brain fog or the desire to cry, are likely tied to your prefrontal cortex. J.M. Fuster says, “the principal and most general function of the prefrontal cortex is the temporal organization of behavior, speech, and reasoning . . . It controls the execution, order and timing of sequential acts toward a goal.” In other words, the prefrontal cortex gathers information from our bodies and other areas of the brain and filters them, processes them, organizes them, labels them, and then tells us how to feel and act.

Interestingly, the prefrontal cortex is the last part of the brain to fully develop. If you’ve ever wondered why adults act like adults, and kids act like kids (with rare exceptions, of course), it’s because the prefrontal cortex in kids is still developing. In fact, most neuroscientists agree that our brains are continuing to develop until about age 25.

The prefrontal cortex works amazingly well under normal conditions. But giving a presentation isn’t a normal condition, right? When we are under pressure to perform, when we are stressed, the prefrontal cortex can’t function like it normally does. Here’s why.

What happens to the prefrontal cortex under stress?

Sian Beilock, Ph.D. is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and an expert on the brain science behind performance failure under pressure. She says when we are under pressure to perform, stress blocks and inhibits normal brain paths and connections. As a result, “the prefrontal cortex stops working the way it should, which can result in (1) an over-attention to performance, (2) a lack of cognitive horsepower devoted to the task at hand, or (3) an emotional outburst.”

Chances are, you’ve experienced one of these three issues before a presentation or speech, if not all of them. Today we’ll cover the first problem and solution, and we’ll finish up the other two in our blog tomorrow. But first things first: that hyper-focus on performance.

Over-attention to Performance

The Problem: There is a flip side to every coin, right? The helpful adrenaline rush that focuses and prepares us for fight or flight has a downside. It can make us so focused on performing that we stop making rational decisions. Research has even shown that this over-attention on performance prevents us from remembering things. And an incomplete and biased picture of what is happening keeps us from rationally deciding how we should react.

The Solution: Take full, slow, deep breaths. This is one of the quickest ways to put the brakes on your fight or flight response. Take in the whole picture. Examine your thoughts, and weigh them carefully. Your brain might be telling you, “if I don’t crush this presentation, I’ll lose my job” or “this is the most important moment of my life, I can’t screw it up.” That’s your over-attention to performance trying to tell you that your performance is the only thing that matters. Say (out loud if necessary), “thanks, prefrontal cortex, but I’ve got this under control. I’m more than my performance today. This is important, and I’ll do my best, but it doesn’t define me.”

Even just knowing that your prefrontal cortex is behind those unrealistic messages and expectations can be a big help. But there’s more to uncover about how the pressure to perform affects us. Tomorrow we’ll figure out how to fight back when our brains lack the horsepower we need to perform or when our emotions seem to be out of our control.

In the meantime, check out our full line of presentation resources or get a free quote for our presentation design and training services.


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