Let me give you a small thought experiment, you need to pay close attention to the video below and I highly recommend that you put on your headphones (for immersion of course!). You will be asked some memory based questions, hence I want you to notice everything closely, the visual, the audio, everything. Remember that you can only do this once. So just maximize the video and get ready?

Notice everything carefully!

Did you see the video? If you didn’t, just stop and see the video first.

Q.1. How many birds were there on the table?
Q.2. What is the time?
Q.3 When is the storm coming?

Ignore every question above, it was just to mask the real intention of the video!

So If you made it this far, I want you to remember this feeling that you just experienced. If you ever engaged into a fist fight or got a dog chasing you, chances are that you must be familiar with this peak in arousal levels. You already know about the physiology, adrenaline, cortisol etc and I am not going to delve into that. Rather, what I am going to do is to dive deeper into cognitive aspects of this heightened state and reflect on how we can use it for our advantage.

Theory of arousal

In Psychology, we have numerous perspectives for describing a specific concept and it is possible for all of them to exist simultaneously and not compete. If you talk about human motivation we have something called The arousal theory. It simply states that human beings seek an optimal level of arousal. But how is it relevant to you?
Do you remember how Sachin Tendulkar used to be a victim of nervous 90’s (He got a record of 27 unfortunate dismissals). Let’s briefly talk about Yerkes-Dodson Law here. It suggests that, the difficult the task is, the lower the level of arousal at which reductions in performance begin to occur. Which means that it is very easy to criticize the batsman by vegetating on the couch rather than trying to hit a ball wheezing past at 120 kmph and that too when thousands of people are chanting your name in a grand unison! Therefore it maybe a case of mismatched arousal level.

Having said that, we know now that performance correlates to the arousal levels. However, this correlation depends on the difficulty level of the task and above a certain level of arousal, the performance can start to deteriorate. But what is this arousal level? Unfortunately there is no proven theory to quantify this magic arousal level hence we can only feel it with trial and error. This concept appears very intuitive at first but ironically we don’t seem to implement it so well.

Reaching beyond

5 years back, I appeared for my engineering entrance examinations. A lot of them actually. My first exam was JEE MAINS. It was considered to be a relatively easier examination as compared to others like JEE ADVANCED and after extrapolating my performance in mock tests I was very confident of getting a good score in that. So before the exam day, I had a set score in my mind below which anything else was unacceptable. But here comes the twist, the moment I stated the test, I was clearly thrown off road by some physics problems. Before I could realize, my arousal level shot through the roof and I entered into a panic state. The arousal level was far beyond optimal and I under performed.

While we drove home, my uncle did all kinds of consoling and said a very important line which proved to be the panacea. He said “Take every question like a cricket ball, you need to hit one at a time.” In the hindsight it feels really obvious but to my 5 year younger self it felt like a game changer. The idea to just focus on something at your hand without worrying about the events prior or latter is a great relief. For me it was the strategy to reach optimum arousal levels. Fortunately, I did good in the subsequent exams with this small mental shift that unintentionally tuned my arousal levels.

If you think about it, this small idea is widely used in numerous spheres. Be it a sport or a small board game. Don’t you remember how Kabir Khan gestured Vidya to reamain calm rather than filling her with details or that intense board game where you asked a weak player just to do his best.

“Yaa Allah! Yeh toh seedha shot legi.”

However, I must caution you before you oversimplify the dynamics of peak performance by attributing enormous weight to arousal levels. This varies from person to person and a variety of other factors some visible, some pretty subtle. It all boils down to figuring out what works best for you. But at least now you know where to take your date for the movie. The secret is out in open I suppose! 😛