I'm interested in learning more about the biological systems or hormones or parts of the brain that affect short term (<15 minutes) ability to concentrate attention on the task and be aware of the situation.

I'm particularly interested in humans who are engaged in an activity that can be perceived as threatening: martial arts, competitive video games, sports and other activities which may be considered "fight or flight", but a scenario in which the person has chosen to stay and fight.

To clarify the question further: What is involved in the ability to make decisions based on the competitive situation itself, instead of responding with pre-learned techniques and tactics? In one case, a person may be aware of what his/her opponents are doing, while in other cases the same person may "rush in blindly" and attempt to execute techniques that were learned and worked before, but will not work in the current situation.

What influences this choice of responding versus acting on prior knowledge?

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    $\begingroup$ My answer to biology.stackexchange.com/questions/2931/… contains the processes that lead to high blood pressure. This pressure is a main factor why your brain has all substances it needs in fight & flight situations. $\endgroup$
    – R Stephan
    Commented Jul 27, 2012 at 14:08
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    $\begingroup$ Actually, the opinion that I've encountered more often is that when faced with a real fight or flight situation, a person will respond with a pre-learned behaviour. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 27, 2012 at 20:25
  • $\begingroup$ the last two paragraph read like a question that would find a better home at cogsci.SE. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 4:19
  • $\begingroup$ This is true, it's well established that when people are under high stress, they are more likely to respond with learned behavior. The ability to act intelligently under pressure is probably mostly a result of gaining expertise in a particular domain so that you can recognize what's going on in a situation and figure out an appropriate response without having to engage in careful, explicit reasoning or do things you're not familiar with. $\endgroup$
    – octern
    Commented Nov 4, 2012 at 20:43

2 Answers 2


thinking and decision making under stress or pressure is significantly reduced. its sometimes called the 'fight or flight' condition.

This is a pretty well established phenomenon. Here's a great radiolab segment on stress response. Psychologist John Gottman notes how our ability to have a conversation where we can even listen to what someone else has to say is practically nil when we are emotionally saturated (frustrated or upset that is). Even a mildly stressful conversation with your own spouse can shut down most rational processes. Gottman can predict couples who overcome this problem which is highly corellated with divorce btw - but most of these couples remove stress in conversations rather than learn to work under pressure as it were.

Jonah Lehrer wrote about how tests to rank quarterbacks in their ability to respond on the gridiron are basically non correlated. I know there have been criticisms of Lehrer, but this is a good piece and well grounded. The point is that its hard to tell a-priori whether someone will perform under stress and given different sorts of stress.

In the japanese space program they would screen candidates by making them do highly repetitive tasks like folding 1000 origami cranes. NASA was just doing interviews with panels of psychologists. That wasn't infallible.

Such a test would be valuable for fighter pilots, astronauts, maybe presidents too! but it doesn't seem to really exist at this point.

In the end you can winnow out those who break into a sweat in the interview, but to know who is going to really take the beach, I think that the only real answer is to see if they make it through a 'live fire' (or whatever) experience.

Or as Clint Eastwood summed it up: "A man's got to know his limitations."

(apologies to the ladies there - you can know your limitations too).

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    $\begingroup$ Very good answer! I especially appreciate the reference about how rational processes can be suppressed. If one relies on rationality in dealing with such situations, one may be surprised. $\endgroup$
    – Alex Stone
    Commented Nov 5, 2012 at 19:16
  • $\begingroup$ thanks @AlexStone - also good reading the day before US elections... ;) $\endgroup$
    – shigeta
    Commented Nov 5, 2012 at 22:24

I recalled a while ago that I saw a presentation on the concept of "Flow".

Here's an overview by the author :Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow, the secret to happiness

The kind of difference in cognitive capacity while engaged in such events can be described as flow. I'm still not certain as to what is causing the difference in the cognitive ability at these times, even in the same person.

flow image


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