Wednesday Live: How Cognitive Science Improves Performance

For the first Wednesday Live event of 2015 we were joined by Aaron Williamon, Professor of Performance Science at the Royal College of Music, who discussed with us the psychology of performance and the implications that this can have on as wide an array of areas as the arts, education, medicine and sport – and how you can use this science to improve your performance in the workplace.

It’s human nature to always want to improve upon your performance, be it in the workplace, on the sports pitch, or on stage. But when you’re already working to what you feel is your capacity, how can you take your performance to the next level?

It was this question that Aaron answered for January’s Wednesday Live audience, drawing upon his wealth of experience in performance and cognitive science. Music is a particularly interesting example when studying performance, as musical standards are constantly being redefined, and boundaries continuously extended.

Performance stress is an affliction which affects many musicians, with heart rates of performers on stage clocking in at up to 120 beats per minute (the same as extremely strenuous exercise). This is perhaps to do with the vast disparity of intensity between the practice room and the performance stage, making it more stressful – both physically and mentally – for the musician to perform to their potential on stage. To counter this, performance scientists at the Royal College of Music have come up with an augmented simulation environment in which its students can practice. Musicians are put in front of a simulated audience or audition panel, and are taken through the usual performance rituals, with their stress levels monitored in order to help them conquer their performance anxieties outside of augmented reality.

Whilst this is a fantastic way to conquer performance stress for musicians, the idea of a simulating a looming deadline, important meeting or tough job interview for practice (those things which would bring about heart-pummelling levels of performance stress in the working world) perhaps isn’t an appealing one to you or your colleagues. So, Aaron’s alternative solution is to concentrate on improving your well-being in order to enhance your performance, and he shared with us the advice given to music students looking to improve their performance:

1. Connect – Humans are sociable creatures by nature – take time to socialise with friends, family, or take up a new hobby to meet new people.

2. Be active – Exercising, or even just walking more, is a fantastic stress buster. Improving physical fitness will also regulate your heartbeat in more stressful situations, allowing you to maintain composure and perform to your maximum potential.

3. Take notice – Be curious about the world around you, and take some time to stop and notice the world around you.

4. Give – Do kind things for your loved ones, colleagues and strangers. Be generous towards others. Always remember to thank and smile.

5. Keep learning – Always be on the look for new things to learn, or take back up an old interest.

We hope that you can take some of these tips and make some little tweaks to make yourself not just happier (and we’re big on being H.A.P.P.I.E.R at Obelisk Support!) but even more efficient and productive at work.