How Being Nervous Messes You Up

on Apr 20, 2010

So perhaps you’re giving some sort of presentation. People are watching you. And all you can think about is how you’re doing and what these people think. And of course, how you can avoid messing up. But it happens, inevitably. Then you get more nervous. And then you make even more mistakes.

It’s all about brain resources – something always in limited supply. Toss in the gas-guzzling behemoth of managing social interaction, and you’ve got very little left to work with. So if your focus is on what others are thinking, then you’re sabotaging yourself. You’re throwing away important brain cycles to monitor social information when you really need to put everything into the task at hand.

An interesting reversed condition also occurs – where social processing is sacrificed for something more taxing, like intense spacial processing. This is something I experience regularly when inline skating at a decent speed, and I’ve heard many cyclists express experiencing the same phenomenon. Essentially, we fail to recognize people we know when moving fast. It isn’t so much the moving fast part that does it. It’s more that we’re trying to process every potential obstacle to avoid disaster. So we see people as objects. Moving objects with trajectories that we must calculate to proceed safely. At that level, recognizing objects as friends is not worth the brain resources.

So the next time you’re feeling nervous under the sight of others, put that thought away (I know, easier said than done) and just focus solely on what you’re doing. And if that friend on wheels whizzes by without saying hi, don’t be offended because his brain is just automatically preoccupied with cruising safely. Keep in mind that our brains and minds are very sophisticated technologies that do have limits. Understanding those limits will let us best use your heads.