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Brain scan foretells who will fold under pressure

Tests on high-stakes math problems identify key regions of neural activity linked to choking

1:33pm, April 2, 2012

CHICAGO — As any high school senior staring down the SAT knows, when the stakes are high, some test-takers choke. A new study finds that activity in distinct parts of the brain can predict whether a person will remain cool or crumble under pressure.

The results, presented April 1 at the annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, offer some great new clues that may help scientists understand how the brain copes with stressful situations, says psychologist Thomas Carr of Michigan State University in East Lansing. “Sometimes you come across a study you wish you'd done yourself,” he says “This is such a study.”

In the study, Andrew Mattarella-Micke and Sian Beilock, both of the University of Chicago, had volunteers perform math problems, some easy, some hard, while undergoing a functional MRI scan. These two-step calculations were designed to tap into a person’s working memory: Participants had to hold an intermediate numb

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