Left to my own devices, I can whip up a perfectly decent three-course meal on my own. However, if someone else is present in the kitchen while I cook, I might burn some dishes; spill oil, water, eggs, and what have you over me, my cat, and the kitchen counter; and completely messing up the proportions of spices in recipes. This isn’t just a kitchen issue, though. Most of the time, I fail to do things right when I know I’m being watched. It’s as if the awareness of having someone’s eyes on me prevents me from exerting control over my limbs.
What is certain, however, is that I am not the only person going through this. “The last time I took a driving test I had been driving regularly for years… I failed twice because the tester was there,” wrote one Reddit user. explaining how they were nervous about being watched and evaluated.
Basically then, as one Quora user pointed out, “[P]People don’t perform worse when someone is watching them, they perform worse when they know they are being watched. A lot of difference there.” But there is still a question: is this normal?
As the Quora user had hypothesized, “[W]When people realize that they are being watched, their focus is divided between what they are doing and the possible impression they are making on the viewers. When you’re not putting all of your focus on the task at hand, obviously, you’re not doing what you’re supposed to. [well] like you otherwise [would have]🇧🇷
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Evidently, there is some truth to this hypothesis. According to a 2016 study published in Scientific Reportsour brain networks are wired to trip us up when we’re anxious to be watched.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers were able to zero in on the brain region behind the performance setbacks. They found that the inferior parietal cortex – an area of the brain that allows us to control our sensorimotor functions – was often turned off by the awareness of being watched. This part of the brain, the researchers noted, was connected to our action-observation network that plays a role in the process of “mentalization,” defined as the way in which we “infer what another person is thinking, based on [their] facial expressions and gaze direction.
Unsurprisingly, it appears that anxiety can make mishaps worse. “We realized that [the action-observation network] may also be related to performance anxiety because, when being scrutinized, we tend to worry about how the public feels about us and our performance,” explained lead study author Michiko Yoshie, affiliated with the department of psychiatry at Brighton and Sussex. Medical School in the UK at the time of the study.
Performance anxiety can also make us choke under pressure – resulting in us performing worse than expected, both in terms of our skills and our practice. Experts note that when we’re performing a routine task, activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex – which otherwise helps with decision-making and focus – is reduced. This allows the circuits responsible for carrying out the task to do their jobs undisturbed and unimpeded. However, “when performance anxiety becomes overwhelming, the prefrontal cortex kicks in and interferes with the activity of these brain circuits, causing a person to fumble and choke under pressure,” explains Levi Gadye, who holds a Ph. d. in neuroscience.
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It is possible that anxiety also generates a vicious cycle of setbacks – as a result of messing up repeatedly, one may internalize the idea that they are “useless” or “useless”, resulting in worry about being told the same by others who have them. they watch work and, in the process, mess up yet again by being anxious.
“It’s important to believe that the audience is behind you and wanting you to perform successfully… To strengthen that belief, you should sometimes have opportunities to perform for your fans,” advised Yoshie, recommending that “[B]Before an actual public performance, a musician might perform in front of [their] family and close friends and receive a lot of applause. This experience would help him induce a desirable activation pattern in his brain and increase self-confidence.”
The aforementioned Reddit user also shared his experience of mitigating – if not overcoming – the overwhelming anxiety that being watched can induce. “What helped me the most as an adult [was] some public speaking courses I took… Basic exposure therapy: put yourself in a situation in a low threat environment, learn the techniques provided by the instructor and practice. It won’t go away, but you will learn a lot about how to deal with anxiety,” they noted.
Well, I suppose it’s worth a try: maybe I’ll ask my partner to be my audience while I cook some mosaic eggs tonight. And, with any luck, the yolks will land in the pan, not on my cat’s back.