In 1994, Italy’s Roberto Baggio was widely considered to be the best soccer player in the world. Having led his country to the final of the World Cup, played before over 100,000 people in the Rose Bowl, Baggio was the obvious choice to take his team’s critical fifth penalty shot in the shootout that would determine the championship. All he had to do was kick the ball past the goalkeeper from 12 yards away, something a star such as Baggio could probably do in his sleep. But at the biggest moment on the biggest stage in world sports, he flubbed it, skying his penalty shot over the crossbar and giving Brazil the World Cup.
Sportswriters and fans love to label such failures as abstract incidents of “choking,” and worse, often use them as evidence of an athlete’s lack of character and resolve. But research from the lab of Sian Beilock, associate professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, has found that choking actually results from information overload in the brain, with active thought overwhelming the more reflexive working memory. That research is the centerpiece of her new book, called Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To, released just this week.
ScienceLife has written about Beilock’s research in the past, when her laboratory looked at how hockey players’ brains process active language differently from non-athletes. But Beilock hasn’t restricted herself to the NHL; she’s also invited golfers into the lab for putting experiments and tested how the attitudes of female teachers toward math affects the performance of their female students. Taken together, her work is less about the sports fans’ concept of “choking” and more about how external and internal factors keep the brain from performing optimally, knowledge that you don’t have to be a world-class soccer player to use.
An experiment published in Science this week demonstrates a central tenet of Einstein’s theory of relativity, by showing that a clock on the floor runs slightly slower than a clock one meter above it. Wired and Discover both offer blogs explaining why that’s important for everything from clock calibration to air travel. Quote the paper’s first author in Wired: “It’s interesting to think about – are frequent flyers getting younger [because they move so much] or aging faster [because they spend so much time in the air]?”
How has mad scientist research changed over the years? Gawker blog io9 made a graph.
The MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago is oldest such program in the United States, has trained scores of physicians in ethical matters, and administers an excellent seminar series that has provided ample material for this here blog. Mark Siegler, the center’s first and so far only director, will receive a lifetime achievement award next month from the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities.