In the actual world, this does not happen. In fact, we occasionally show up fantastically unprepared. In fact, just this morning, my 15-year-old daughter had such a moment: a math test this afternoon, and she’d barely studied.
Fortunately, modern science is here to rescue us. Specifically, science that reveals the surprising power of small environmental cues to activate unconscious triggers in our brains.
There are entire books written about this subject (my favorite is Adam Alter’s wonderful Drunk Tank Pink) and I recommend checking them out. But in the meantime here are a few quick performance-enhancing tricks that you can use in a pinch. Keep in mind that the science is in its infancy, and that many of these studies have tiny sample sizes.
But that’s okay. After all, you’re desperate.
- 1) Think about your ancestors. This experiment in Germany showed that students who spent a few minutes thinking about their forebearers (either great grandparents or more distant) improved performance on a memory test by 30 percent over students who thought about friends or shopping. The reason? We’re social animals. Your ancestors are the reason you exist. Thinking about them seems to activate our senses of belonging, confidence, and control.
- 2) Wear red, especially in sports. This is a weird one, but apparently true: a 2004 study of 457 Olympic wrestling matches showed that when competitors were seeded identically, the ones wearing red won 62 percent of the matches. A similar finding was done with a half-century-long study of English soccer teams (though the fact that powers Manchester United and Liverpool both wear red might have something to do with that). Scientists theorize it has to do with the fact that red holds an evolutionary link to dominance and aggression, and thus triggers unconscious feelings of dominance that improve performance.
- 3) Spend a few minutes staring at a photo of trees, or (better) take a quick walk in the woods, which has been shown to improve performance on a memory and attention test by 20 percent.
- 4) Listen to relaxing music, which improves the body’s ability to handle stress, lowering cortisol levels and buffering against negative emotions.
- 5) If you’re a woman speaking to a group, look at a picture of Hillary Clinton: this experiment showed that exposure to Hillary’s face (as opposed to her husband’s face or a landscape) substantially improved the public-speaking abilities of women. (Sorry, guys — no similar effect found for men.)
- 6) Chew gum, which improves blood flow to the brain and improved recall by 20 percent on a short test.
- 7) Exercise, which has a similar blood-flow effect, and, in the long run, helps build a better brain.
- 8) Take a quick nap, which has all kinds of cognitive benefits (especially if you follow the official rules of high-performance napping).
As we drove to school today, I told my daughter some of these tricks. At this exact moment she’s chewing gum, thinking about ancestors, and staring at trees (as luck would have it, she was already wearing red). I’ll let you know how it turns out.