Performing with and without an audience

My feeling is that as far as creativity is concerned, isolation is required. … The presence of others can only inhibit this process, since creation is embarrassing.

– Isaac Asimov (source)

Be it far from me to fall for a behavioural studies paper that’s not yet been replicated, and much farther to do so based on a university press release, but this one caught my attention because it suggests something completely opposite to my experience: “when there’s an audience, people’s performance improves”. Sure enough, four full paras into the piece there’s a qualification:

Vikram Chib, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins … who has studied what happens in the brain when people choke under pressure, originally launched this project to investigate how performance suffers under social observation. But it quickly became clear that in certain situations, having an audience spurred people to do better, the same way it would if money was on the line. (emphasis added)

The situation in question involved 20 participants playing a videogame in front of an audience of two and, in a different ‘act’, in front of no audience at all. If a participant played the game better, he/she received a higher reward. Brain activity was monitored at all times using an fMRI machine.

You realise now that the press release’s headline is almost criminally wrong, considering it’s likely been vetted by some scientists if not those who conducted the study itself. It suggests that people’s performance improves in all circumstances; however, a videogame is nothing like writing, for example. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who can write when they’re being watched. This is because writing isn’t a performance art whereas a videogame could be. And when executing a performance, having an audience helps.

According to Chib and the press release, this is the mechanism of action:

When participants knew an audience was watching, a part of the prefrontal cortex associated with social cognition, particularly the thoughts and intentions of others, activated along with another part of the cortex associated with reward. Together these signals triggered activity in the ventral striatum, an area of the brain that motivates action and motor skills.

While this is interesting, 20 people isn’t too much, the task is too simple and definitely not generalisable, and the audience is too small. Playing a videogame in front of two strangers (presumably) is nothing like playing a videogame in a room chock full of people, or when the stakes are higher. In fact, in real life, you’re almost certainly being judged if there’s an audience watching you as you conduct a task, and your stress levels are going to be far higher than when you’re playing something on your Xbox in front of two people.

A final quibble is more a wondering about the takeaway. The study seems to have focused on a very narrowly defined task while one of its authors – Chib – freely acknowledges its various shortcomings. Why weren’t these known issues addressed in the same paper instead of angling for a follow-up? I suspect future studies will also perform the same experiment multiple times with different kinds of tasks.

But if the audience was a lot bigger, and the stakes higher, the results could have gone the other way. “Here people with social anxiety tended to perform better,” Chib said, “but at some point, the size of the audience could increase the size of one’s anxiety but we still need to figure that out.”

Perhaps this is a case of someone trying to jack up their publication count.

Featured image credit: Skitterphoto/pixabay.


The neuroscience of how you enter your fantasy-realms

If you grew up reading Harry Potter (or Lord of the Rings, as the case may be), chances are you’d have liked to move to the world of Hogwarts (or Middle Earth), and spent time play-acting scenes in your head as if you were in them. This way of enjoying fiction isn’t uncommon. On the contrary, the potentially intimidating levels of detail that works of fantasy offer often lets us move in with the characters we enjoy reading about. As a result, these books have a not inconsiderable influence on our personal development. It isn’t for nothing that story-telling is a large part of most, if not all, cultures.

That being the case, it was only a matter of time before someone took a probe to our brains and tried to understand what really was going as we read a great book. Those someones are Annabel Nijhof and Roel Willems, both neuroscientists affiliated with the Radboud University in The Netherlands. They used functional magnetic resonance imaging, a technique that employs a scanner to identify the brain’s activity by measuring blood flow around it, “to investigate how individuals differently employ neural networks important for understanding others’ beliefs and intentions, and for sensori-motor simulation while listening to excerpts from literary novels”.

If you’re interested in their methods, their paper published in PLOS One on February 11 discusses them in detail. And as much as I’d like to lay them out here, I’m also in a hurry to move on to the findings.

Nijhof and Willems found that there were two major modes in which listeners’ brains reacted to the prompts, summed up as mentalizing and activating. A mentalizing listener focused on the “thoughts and beliefs” depicted in the prompt while an activating listener paid more attention to descriptions of actions and replaying them in his/her head. And while some listeners did both, the scientists found that the majority either predominantly mentalized or predominantly activated.

This study references another from 2012 that describes how the neural system associated with mentalizing kicks in when people are asked to understand motivations, and that associated with activating kicks in when they’re asked to understand actions. So an extrapolation of results between both studies yields a way for neuroscientists to better understand the neurocognitive mechanisms associated with assimilating stories, especially fiction.

At this point, a caveat from the paper is pertinent:

It should be noted that the correlation we observed between Mentalizing and Action networks, only holds for one of the Mentalizing regions, namely the anterior medial prefrontal cortex. It is tempting to conclude that this region plays a privileged role during fiction comprehension, in comparison to the other parts of the mentalizing network

… while of course this isn’t the case, so more investigation – as well as further review of extant literature – is necessary.

The age-range of participants in the Nijhof-Willems study was 18-27 years, with an average age of 22.2 years. Consequent prompt: a similar study but with children as subjects could be useful in determining how a younger brain assimilates stories, and checking if there exist any predilections toward mentalizing or activating – or both or altogether something else – which then change as the kids grow up. (I must add that such a study would be especially useful to me because I recently joined a start-up that produces supplementary science-learning content for 10-15-year-olds in India.)

So… are you a mentalizing reader or an activating reader?


Problems associated with studying the brain

Paul Broca announced in 1861 that the region of the brain now named after him was the “seat of speech”. Through a seminal study, researchers Nancy Kanwisher and Evelina Fedorenko from MIT announced on October 11, 2012, that Broca’s area actually consists of two sub-units, and one of them specifically handles cognition when the body performed demanding tasks.

As researchers explore more on the subject, two things become clear.

The first: The more we think we know about the brain and go on to try and study it, the more we discover things we never knew existed. This is significant because, apart from giving researchers more avenues through which to explore the brain, it also details their, rather our, limits in terms of being able to predict how things really might work.

The biology is, after all, intact. Cells are cells, muscles are muscles, but through their complex interactions are born entirely new functionalities.

The second: how the cognitive-processing and the language-processing networks might communicate internally is unknown to us. This means we’ll have to devise new ways of studying the brain, forcing it to flex some muscles over others by subjecting it to performing carefully crafted tasks.

Placing a person’s brain under an fMRI scanner reveals a lot about which parts of the brain are being used at each moment, but now we realize we have no clue about how many parts are actually there! This places an onus on the researcher to devise tests that

  1. Affect only specific areas of the brain;
  2. If they have ended up affecting some other areas as well, allow the researcher to distinguish between the areas in terms of how they handle the test

Once this is done, we will finally understand both the functions and the limits of Broca’s area, and also acquire pointers as to how it communicates with the rest of the brain.

A lot of predictability and antecedent research is held back because of humankind’s inchoate visualization of the brain.