Brain Scans Predict which Olympic Athletes won’t Choke

How amazing is this story? It seems that brain scans are capable of revealing which of two Olympic athletes who were trained equally, would be most likely to choke while under pressure, stated Vikram Chib. It is the one that is the most excited about the prospects of winning the gold, with all the pride, the glory, and even the possible cash rewards that come along with it.

Uncovering Brain Secrets

Chib, who is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering from Johns Hopkins University, examines  the ways that incentives will motivate performance. He has discovered that whenever people play for very high stakes, the people who are most likely to choke will exhibit big swings of activity in that area located deep inside the brain which encodes value. Within these people, whenever the incentive is bigger, it causes this area to lights up more. However, after they begin the physical activity when the money is on the line, this activity quickly plummets, the exact same way as it does whenever someone starts thinking about losing. This kind of neural deactivation will adversely affect the motor skills of the athlete—and this is when they choke.

“Think of a hockey player taking a penalty shot,” Chib noted. “They might think to themselves, I’m going to score. But when they actually take the shot, they become worried about the possibility of failure and they miss. We think that the areas of the brain that are responsible for encoding reward and potential gains and losses are what’s coming online and interfering with their motor performance. Even a hockey player that’s trained thousands upon thousands of hours, these worries about loss or gain can interfere with their performance.”

The athletes who are most likely to earn a medal, Chib says, are either internally hard-wired to be calm and cool whenever stakes are high, or they have discovered a way to get in the zone mentally.

“We found when you frame things appropriately, your neural activity stays pretty constant. You don’t get really amped up for high gains or really depressed for losses,” he added. “The people that can maintain very stable reward activity tend to be the ones that don’t choke under pressure.”