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Asked to give a speech, many people experience sweaty palms, a dry mouth and rising sense of panic. But we perform better when people are watching than alone (stock image)
Asked to give a speech in front of an audience, many people experience sweaty palms, a dry mouth and rising sense of panic.

Whether it is singing, playing an instrument or taking part in an amateur dramatics production, there is a very real fear in front of an audience of 'choking' or forgetting the words on stage.

But, believe it or not, we actually perform better when people are watching than alone because having an audience boosts our motor skills, researchers have revealed.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University asked participants to play a tricky computer game involving moving a cursor to reach a cross hair target at the optimum speed.

When watched by an audience of two, all but two of the participants did better - up to 20 per cent better than if they were playing alone.

Brain scans showed that when they knew they were being observed, the parts of the brain linked to social awareness and reward triggered those controlling motor skills to improve performance.

The study's lead author, Dr Vikram Chib, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins, said: 'You might think having people watch you isn't going to help, but it might actually make you perform better.

'An audience can serve as an extra bit of incentive.'

Previous research has shown people do better under public pressure because of worries about how they are presenting themselves.

The new study states that performing well is seen as 'increasing social approval by others' while a poor performance can have an 'adverse impact on one's social standing'.

To test this, the authors recruited 20 people aged 19 to 32 to tackle the video game and paid them a small amount of money based on how well they did.

They played the game either alone or in front of an audience of two and were rated for smoothness of their hand movements and accuracy.
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Whether it is singing or taking part in an amateur dramatics production, there is a very real fear in front of an audience of 'choking' or forgetting the words on stage (stock image)
When people were watching, participants were an average of five per cent better at the game, with some participants up to 20 per cent better.

Only two out of the 20 failed to see an improvement in front of an audience.

Scanning their brains using an MRI machine, researchers found those performing to an audience had increased activity in a part of the prefrontal cortex thought to weight up the thoughts and intentions of others.

The parts of their cortex associated with reward also lit up.

Together these signals triggered activity in the ventral striatum, an area of the brain that motivates action and motor skills.

The findings, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, suggest a small audience boosts the incentive to do well. But if the audience was a lot bigger, and the stakes higher, the results could have gone the other way.

'Here, people with social anxiety tended to perform better,' Dr Chib said.

'But at some point, the size of the audience could increase the size of one's anxiety. We still need to figure that out.'

Whether it's the thought of giving a presentation at an important office meeting or getting frustrated sat in a queue of traffic, stress has become an unwelcome part of every day life.

A simple breathing technique could help calm the nerves in seconds - by 'fooling' the body into thinking it is relaxed.

A YouTube video called 'Mind Hack: Combat Anxiety with This Breathing Technique,' explains how people can calm themselves down simply with a few inhales and exhales.

In it, Jane McGonigal, best-selling author of SuperBetter and video game designer, describes how the 'power breath' can help people to achieve a relaxed state similar to sleep.

While the benefits of deep breaths in have been widely reported, she argues the ultimate trick is not so much how you breathe in but also how you breathe out that counts.

The method has one simple rule - exhale for double the amount of time you inhale.

Put simply, if you breathe in and count to four seconds, you should then slowly exhale and count to eight seconds as you do it.

This triggers a change in the nervous system from 'sympathetic' mode - which is what we associate with fight or flight - to 'parasympathetic' - or 'rest and digest' mode.

If someone is particularly stressed or anxious worked up, she suggests they inhale for two and out for four.

Then gradually increase this to inhaling for eight seconds and exhale for 16 seconds after a bit of practice.