The Sweet Spot for Performance

As Congress heads toward debating whether to renew the No Child Left Behind Act, its members might do well to consider the biology of boredom, frazzle and the brain’s sweet spot for performance.

The interplay between being daydreamy, feeling stressed, and effective performance was first codified by Robert Yerkes and John Dodson in 1908, in a shape like an upside-down U with its legs spread. The Yerkes-Dodson Law proposes that when our physiological arousal flags (an indicator of boredom), our performance on any task will be poor. But as we get more aroused – motivated, engaged, enthusiastic – performance picks up to a peak point, the brain’s sweet spot. Beyond that tipping point, though, further arousal translates into a debilitating stress – the greater the stress, the worse our performance.

No news there. But now neuroscience has delved into the brain mechanics underlying how different states of arousal shape performance, with lessons not just for the classroom, but the office as well.

Take the neurobiology of frazzle, the upset we feel from an outsized dose of daily hassles. Frazzle arises from the nervous system’s plan for crisis. The biological maneuvers involved shift control from the brain’s executive center in the prefrontal area just behind the forehead to the more primitive emotional circuitry in mid-brain, roughly between the ears. This emergency response favors kneejerk responses over creativity, speed over thoughtfulness.

The ascendant emotional centers handicap the prefrontal area, paralyzing attention and narrowing the space available in memory to take in new information – in other words, to learn. The more pressure intensifies, the less able we are to hold information in working memory, to pay attention or to react flexibly – let alone creatively – to plan or organize well. The further we go on this downward arc, the greater our descent into cognitive dysfunction. For children, this means the more anxious they are, the less they register their lessons.

The full text of this essay is available to subsribers to TimesSelect from The New York Times.

Further resources:

  • Eran Chajut and Daniel Algom, 2003, “Selective attention improves under stress: implications for theories of social cognition,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 231-248.
  • Amy Arnsten, 1998, “The biology of being frazzled,” Science, 280, 1711-1713.
  • J. T. Noteboom et al., 2001,“Activation of the arousal response and impairment of performance increase with anxiety and stressor intensity,” Journal of Applied Physiology, 91, 2039-2101.
  • Mark Ashcroft and Elizabeth Kirk, 2001, “The relationship among working memory, math anxiety, and performance,” Journal of Experimental Psychology, 130, 2, 224-227.
  • Bernet Elizuya and Karin Rochlofs, 2005, “Cortisol-induced impairments of working memory requires acute sympathetic activation, Behavioral Neuroscience, 119, 98-103.
  • Heather C. Abercrombie et al., 2003, “Cortisol variation in humans affects memory for emotionally laden and neutral information,” Behavioral Neuroscience, 117, 505-516.
  • “When high-powered people fail: Working memory and ‘choking under pressure’ in math,” Psychological Science, 16, 101-105.

One thought on “The Sweet Spot for Performance

  1. Wow that’s amazing to read! I went through a period of huge stress a couple of years ago and noticed how it effected my memory. I was studying at the time and it became virtually impossible to retain information. This was very distressing as I wondered whether the minor breakdown I experienced was actually having a long term effect on the capactiy of my brain. My memory has improved now – very gradually – but I still notice how, if I’m emotionally/mentally distressed, I can’t focus or take information in.

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