Law School Academic Support Blog

Editor: Amy Jarmon
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Threats and Challenges in the Brain

In the 1994 Winter Olympic Games in Lillehammer, Norway, the Japanese ski jumping team was having a very good day. After seven jumps, it had racked up a score so high that no one believed they could lose. The team’s final jumper, Masahiko Harada, who had already landed a jump of 122 meters on his first jump, only needed to jump 105 meters on his second to clinch the gold medal. But Harada faltered. His jump was not well executed, and he only managed to get to 97.5 meters before his skis touched the ground. The Japanese team ended up with the silver medal, finishing behind the German team.

Four years later, the Winter Olympics were being held in Nagano, Japan, and, once again, Masahiko Harada was on the team. He and the team were hoping to redeem themselves, and, of course, all eyes were on them as the home team. Harada was no longer the team anchor, so it was hoped that, without the pressure of having to be the final jumper for the team, he would perform at the Games as well as the team knew he could in practice. The first two jumpers did extremely well, putting the Japanese team in first place. But then Harada . . . did even worse than he had at Lillehammer, achieving a distance of only 79.5 meters on his first jump. The team fell to fourth place.

Things looked bad until Takanobu Okabe landed an Olympic record-setting 137-meter jump on his second attempt, bringing the Japanese team back into contention. They weren’t back in the lead, but at least they had a chance for a medal. And now it was Harada’s turn again. In his last two Olympic jumps, when he just needed to not screw up to keep the team in position, he screwed up. Now, if he wanted to help the team get a medal, he had to do more than not screw up. He had to excel.

And he did. He tied Okabe’s record, making his own 137-meter jump, and sending the Japanese team into first place. They would go on to win the gold medal in the event.

How did all of that happen? Why did Harada jump poorly in his last jump in Lillehammer, and his first jump in Nagano, but then manage to jump exceptionally well in his second Nagano jump? The stakes were high – Olympic gold – all three times, so surely there was always enormous pressure on him. What made the difference?

It might be easier to explain the difference if we consider, not the stakes, but the positions in which Harada found himself. In his second 1994 jump and his first 1998 jump, his team was in first place. He knew he had to perform to a certain level to maintain his team’s position. Expectations were high, but he didn’t have to do unusually well. He was just focusing on not making a mistake, because this situation was a threat to his (and his team’s) position.

In contrast, by the time he’d reached his second 1998, his team was no longer in first place. They weren’t expecting to win, but, thanks to Okabe’s big jump, at least they had a chance. Harada had less to lose, and good reason to allow himself to take risks, because there was more upside than downside to doing so. This situation was not a threat to his position; it was a challenge.

In their book Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explain that there are physical differences between the way our brains react when we view a situation as a threat and the way they react when we view a situation as a challenge. In a threat situation, there is an increase in activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is associated with more deliberate and less automatic decision making. At the same time, the parts of the brain that watch out for external dangers (the left temporoparietal junction) and for internal errors in judgment (the anterior cingulate cortex) also become more engaged. Also, as activity in the amygdala increases, the brain becomes more sensitized to avoiding risk than to seeking reward.

In a sense, your brain starts paying closer attention to everything you see and do, and it clamps down on behaviors it perceives as potentially risky. In playing it safe, though, your brain limits the scope of the choices you feel comfortable making, which in turn shrinks the range of performance of which you are capable. When Harada was going for the 105-meter jump for gold in Lillehammer, his brain was subconsciously refusing to allow him to take actions – picking up more speed, jumping off closer to the end of the ramp – that would have given him great distance, but also would have carried an increased risk of falling.  The cumulative effect of all those refusals made him, in a very real sense, incapable of performing anywhere near his best.  In other circumstances, this would have been of little consequence -- 97.5 meters was by no means the worst jump in the Olympics that year, and it was probably several dozen meters longer than you or I could have managed.  But in high-level competition, seeing the jump as a threat robbed Harada of the ability to show the world what he was capable of, and left him and his team wanting in comparison to the Germans.

In contrast, when you see something as a challenge, your brain takes on an entirely different set of characteristics.  Hormones are released in the brain that dampen the activity in the left tempororparietal junction, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the amygdala, so you expend less energy and attention watching out for dangers, errors, and risks.  Instead, your decision making starts to flow more easily and automatically; you rely on expertise and habit rather than stopping to deliberate over every choice.  And when risks are perceived, they are not automatically shunned; instead, your brain attends to both the potential losses and the potential gains, and is open to taking the risks when the gains are great enough.  When Harada was preparing to take his second jump in Nagano, he was no longer trying to protect his team's first-place position, so he didn't see the jump as a threat.  He was able to look at it as a challenge -- Let me see how much I can obtain from this -- and, subconsciously, that freed up his range of behaviors to choose from.  Only when his brain allowed him access to all the skills and knowledge he had acquired was he able to achieve the exceptional result he hoped for.

* * * * *

No doubt you smart people have already noticed the resemblances between Harada's performances and those of some of our law students, especially the ones who sometimes seem not to perform to the level of which they are capable.  Whether students view tests, oral presentations, and other ordeals as "threats" or as "challenges" can have powerful effects on their performance.  As we will see next week, though, threat stances and challenge stances both have a place in legal study, and there are ways that we, as teachers, can help students take the right stances at the right times.

Advice, Bar Exam Preparation, Encouragement & Inspiration, Exams - Studying, Science | Permalink


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