Friday, February 6, 2009

Memory under stress in dog agility

Recently Slate ran an interesting article, "I'm plunging to my death, now what do I do?" it is excerpted from the book, "The survivors club: the secrets and science that could save your life."
The article is framed by the recent incident in which a skydiving instructor died while conducting a tandem dive. I don't know anything about skydiving I think that's what its called, two people attached. Anyway, he died of a heart attack, the soldier remembered what he was supposed to do and managed to get himself onto the ground in a controlled manner.

Apparently, not everyone could perform with such aplomb under duress. Stress can cause people's brains to shut off and it happens every so often in skydiving which can lead to very bad things such as hitting the ground at a high velocity.

Though dog agility is a little less treacherous than sky diving, agility competitors often have a hard time remembering where to go in the excitement and anxiety of running.

According to the article, Dr. John Leach of Lancaster University has researched memory in parachutists by testing the memories of skydivers before a jump after a jump and on non-skydiving days. He found that they can't remember stuff under stress. He theorized that the memories of how to save themselves was stored in their long-term memory and retrieval of that information became blocked by anxiety.

This study by Sian Beilock, assistant professor in psychology at the University of Chicago found that highly accomplished people are more prone to failure when under stress – for some reason due to their heavy reliance on their short term, or working memory.

According to the press release:

Highly accomplished people tend to heavily rely on their abundant supply of working memory and are therefore disadvantaged when challenged to solve difficult problems, such as mathematical ones, under pressure.

Working memory is a short-term memory system that maintains a limited amount of information in an active state. It functions by providing information of immediate relevance while preventing distractions and irrelevant thoughts from interfering with the task at hand.

People with a high level of working memory depend on it heavily during problem solving. “If you’ve got it, flaunt it” Beilock said.

However, that same advantage makes them particularly susceptible to the dangers of stress.“In essence, feelings of pressure introduce an intrusion that eats up available working memory for talented people,” Beilock said.

Math is not the same as sports but holding the course in your mind can be challenging in a trial situation. Especially when there are other aspects to the run that you're concerned about, say…hitting the contacts.

Performance under pressure is something that has always fascinated me because I played tennis as a kid. I was ok, I really didn't practice enough to be particularly good but I don't think I really had any talent for the game. I participated in several tournaments and during the matches, I did very badly. My performance dropped from middling to somewhere near pathetic.

I know what choking under pressure feels like and it does suck.

When I attempted to move from the hunter ring to jumpers in riding, I had the same problem except instead of just sucking I was consumed by intense fear and anxiety. Needless to say I didn't do very well. Had I been more self-aware then I would have tried to mitigate those feelings with meditation, positive thinking and the like.

Luckily agility is not nearly as difficult or technical as tennis nor as life-threatening as show jumping or skydiving for that matter.

Thanks to our fantastic agility instructor Cynthia Kean, I have some methods at my disposal for dealing with stress and they have helped actually.

Some techniques include:

  • Visualization
  • Deep breathing
  • Positive thinking
  • Gratitude – its wonderful just to be spending time with my dog and having fun. (That's what I tell myself when he won't down on the table in trial…we're having fun damn it!)

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