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Greg Watry, Digital Reporter

Even the most practiced performers experience anxiety on the stage. Empirical evidence suggests that having an audience can have either facilitative or detrimental effects on a performance.

Now, neuroscientists from the Univ. of Sussex have identified the brain network system responsible for anxious flubs and stumbles.

Using functional magnetic resonance neuroimaging (fMRI), the team observed the brains of people carrying out an activity. The task—which required study participants to exert a precise amount of force when gripping an object—was performed while the participant viewed video footage.

“The presence or absence of social evaluation was experimentally manipulated by presenting each participant with video footage of two observers who appeared to be closely evaluating the participant’s own task performance in real-time (observed condition) or that of another participant (unobserved condition),” the researchers wrote in Scientific Reports. “We predicted that the observed condition would elicit a mild level of anxiety in our participants.”

Participants, according to the researchers, reported heightened levels of anxiety when they perceived that they were being viewed. It caused them to grip the objects harder.

Brain scans of the participants showed that the area of the brain responsible for fine sensorimotor functions—the inferior parietal cortex (IPC)—was deactivated when participants believed they were being viewed. The IPC works with the brain’s posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) to create the action-observation network, which humans use to infer what other people are thinking based on gaze and facial expressions.

According to Dr. Michiko Yoshie, the action-observation network could be related to performance anxiety, as people tend to care what others think of their performance.

“Our data suggest that social evaluation can vary force output through the altered engagement of (the IPC); a region implicated in sensorimotor integration necessary for object manipulation, and a component of the action-observation network which integrates and facilitates performance of observed actions,” the researchers write.

While this information may not directly help people overcome social anxiety, Yoshie said there are brain stimulation techniques that can help activate desired behavior, such as transcranial magnetic stimulation and transcranial direct current stimulation.

This Article first appeared in rdmag.com on 21/01/2016