Article: Why Our Brains Freeze Up

Here's an interesting new article about why we experience brain freeze, with some interesting suggestions on how to avoid it. We've all seen it - a coworker that freezes up in the middle of a presentation, an athlete that chokes under pressure. Whatever you want to call it - brain freeze, choking, going blank - it's all the same thing, and it's an awful experience.

New scientific research, discussed in this article, has shown that we tend to choke for two reasons. The first reason we choke occurs when our worries distract us and our brains forget to use our autopilot abilities. When we worry excessively, a part of our brain called the pre-frontal cortex gets very active. The pre-frontal cortex is responsible for conscious thinking and reasoning; when it gets overactive, we rely less on the parts of our brain that handle ingrained, routine tasks. So for instance, if we are giving a presentation about something we are very familiar with, our worries about doing a good job might engage that pre-frontal cortex as we focus on how we are standing, where we are looking, our dry throat, etc., and we will start to speak less smoothly and coherently about that very familiar topic.

The second reason we choke, particularly in sports or physical environments, occurs when extreme stress powers down a part of the brain that controls our movements, called the ventral striatum. Some stress actually increases activity in the ventral striatum, which helps us move more quickly or precisely, like how sprinters often run just a little faster in front of a crowd than in practice. However, too much stress overloads the ventral striatum and it shuts down to some degree. Unfortunately, this part of the brain is also responsible for movement, so we can literally freeze up or at least get slower and more clumsy.

Fortunately, this new research did reveal some things that help us ward off brain freeze or choking. For instance, squeezing a ball in the left hand was shown to help right-handed athletes, like soccer players taking a penalty kick. The act of squeezing a ball in the left hand requires additional activation of the right side of the brain and quiets the left side of the brain, which processes a lot of our worrying. Another helpful tool identified by researchers was 10 minutes of relaxation meditation or writing before a test. Meditating or writing down on paper why they worried, helped test takers do a better job than the control group, which simply sat in silence for 10 minutes, allowed to worry about the upcoming test. Again, these tasks helped keep the parts of the brain that contribute to choking in-line.