Many people get nervous when they have to speak in front of a crowd. Whether it's a business meeting or speech, getting up in front of a group can be difficult. The stress it causes makes some speakers fear that they will mess up, drop something or make a mistake.
As it happens, the opposite is true, according to new research from neuroscientists at Johns Hopkins University. When we have an audience, the brain helps us do better.
Lead author Vikram Chib is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins and the Kennedy Krieger Institute. He explained, "You might think having people watch you isn't going to help, but it might actually make you perform better. An audience can serve as an extra bit of incentive." Having an audience triggers the part of the brain that handles social interaction. Initially, the researchers thought their study would show that this observation would cause presenters to falter due to stress, but MRI scans showed brain activity that was very different than expected.
From other earlier studies, the team at JHU knew that when people are being watched, their brain activity spikes in areas that are known to process thoughts about other people. The pressure of being watched is real, even when the observers cannot affect the speaker in any negative way, however research on how presenting information to a group might cause the brain to seek a reward as it often does in social situations is sparse.
The experiment that led to the results was conducted by Chib and his co-authors and involved 20 participants were awarded a small amount of money based on their performance on a video game similar to the popular Wii and Xbox Kinect game systems. The players competed in the match both alone, and with an audience of two people watching. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans were used to monitor brain activity during the experiment.
The scans showed that when the study volunteers knew there was an audience, even just two people, there was increased brain activity in the part of the prefrontal cortex that is typically involved during social events, and, more specifically, when processing the thoughts of others. There was also activity in the center of the brain that processes reward. This electrical activity in the brain triggered signaling in a part of the brain called the ventral striatum, which is where action and gross motor skills are regulated. In short, an audience spurred the volunteers' neural impulses to do well. Of the 20 participants, all but two performed better with an audience than those who were not observed.
The team hopes to continue the research with broader audiences. A "crowd" of two people isn't the best sample size to judge so future work on will concentrate on larger audiences to see if the brain activity stays the same. For now, check out the video below to hear more about the work.