Now that we’re almost through the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, we have witnessed several examples of athletes excelling and underperforming. How an athlete responds to a high pressure situation could give interesting clues into the underlying neurobiology and evolutionary history of the brain. The brain has to operate under trade-offs. There is what Stephen Grossberg calls the plasticity-stability trade-off, where a system that learns must decide when to learn and when not to learn since learning involves overwriting previously learned patterns. There is also the question of how much cognitive control should be exercised. People talk about just letting their “muscle memory” takeover and go on “instinct” but what does that really mean neurobiologically? Recent research has shown that a movement resulting from a reaction is faster than one from an intention. These experiments found that people could hit buttons faster when they reacted to someone rather than when they initiated which shows that more cognitive control can make you slower.
I think it is quite clear that some athletes rise to the occasion under high pressure situations while others wilt. The question is why is there such variability. Naively, it would seem that always performing under pressure should be a good thing. The answer must be that rising to the occasion is not always optimal in an evolutionary sense. Let’s imagine in paleolithic times that you’re in a stressful situation where you’re trying to catch your dinner or are running away from something that wants you for dinner. That would be an analogous situation to a high pressure athletic event. I think that there is not always an optimal strategy. In some instances, you would want to simply run as fast as you can and being able to reach top performance would be helpful. In other instances, it may be better to hesitate and come up with a plan before acting.