Posted on February 15, 2011 in Uncategorized by adam2 Comments »

I find I can’t read books on testing or automation anymore; at best I skim them only to really pay attention for a page or two before going back to skimming. (I know I’m paying attention when I pause the music for those who are curious.) This actually doesn’t bother me as I have believed for a long time that the next leap is not going to come from inside the field but outside. One area of interest is brain science.

I heard about Choke during the initial publication promotion blitz and immediately asked for a review copy (pro tip: always ask before buying). I was drawn to the book initially since I think the only reason (well, aside from regulatory requirement) to create a Test Plan well in advance of the actual testing is to get your thoughts organized before the [inevitable] crunch when you are under stress. Some people thrive under stress, but too often they experience The Choke where you perform less-than-optimally. And of course, in the classic development model this is a bad thing as the testers are the last gate before production. (Agile’s disdain for the ‘crunch’ is I think one of the reasons for its impact on potential quality.)

Sian Beilock is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago which to me means she is qualified to write about the brain. Choke has been written in such a way to be able to be consumed by non-neuroscientists which is a good thing; I once read a book on fiberoptics that should have required a post-graduate degree in math to just open up. That doesn’t mean its a quick or easy read, just that it is possible to read it. The first half of the book explains the different types of chokes and what is triggering it in the brain. And of course provides some mechanisms for combatting chokes — it is easier to combat when you know is happening to you. The second half brings it back to the business and sports realm.

A sampling of things I underlined in my copy

  • Choking is sub optimal performance
  • Experienced people benefit from hearing the thoughts of less-experienced people
  • Taking a step back before tackling a stressful task helps not only in the task but afterwards as well. The body/brain needs time to recover from a stressful event.
  • Finding meaningful ways to group separate information into bundles can take the burden off working memory and help you remember more — Mnemonics anyone?
  • Athletes’ tendency to overthink their performance is one big predictor of whether they will choke in important games or matches
  • Functional Fixedness
  • Adults learn new languages better when they are distracted and not concentrating too-hard on learning. This is because the distraction makes their prefrontal cortex look like a child’s
  • Stereotype threat
  • Changing how a math problem is presented on the page changes how the brain will attempt to solve it
  • Fight-or-flight stuff would be interesting
  • If you can manage to interpret your body’s response to a situation as a positive, as a call to action, you are likely to thrive
  • A trick to preventing the choke is to write down what is making your nervous about a situation changes how the brain reacts to it — incidentally, I no longer coach making a Test Plan but a Mindmap instead.
  • Meditation and Mindful Breathing are two tricks to help both combat and recover from a stressful event. Breathing is another thing to learn about this year. If you ever see me on a plane or just before I start a presentation I’m very consciously controlling how I breathe
  • The meditation bit is about being able to clear thoughts easier — specifically the negative ones.
  • When athletes think about themselves screwing up, they are more likely to
  • Worrying takes up working-memory — which you need!
  • When doing something you have done thousands of times before, concentrating on doing it correct is exactly what causes you to fail. ‘Just do it’ indeed.
  • Beginners should think about what they are doing. But only until they don’t need to anymore.
  • Practice only makes perfect if it is in conditions that reflect what would experience when using that skill.
  • Focus on what to do rather than how to do it
  • Learned Helplessness
  • Schemas for information are important
  • Mirror neurons is not ‘new’ to me, but still is fascinating

Is Choke a must have book for the average tester? Likely not, though if you find yourself getting stressed out during release crunches this might help you perform better during them. Now, as someone who has to talk a lot either in sales calls, training classes or conferences and who has choked in the past there are things that I certainly will be doing and help coalesce some of my own observations. If you thinking of moving onto the speaking circuit or going independent there are certainly worse ways to spend your book budget than on Choke.

And now a bit of semi-related commentary…

I’m not really excited about this year’s iterations of conferences I have been excited about in the past. It could be burnout (certainly it is partly) but it is also a reflection of who is there. There really is a ‘speaking circuit’ with the same people (us consultants make up a lot of it) sometimes speaking on the same set of ideas. People like Ms. Beilock are who we should be inviting to speak at these things. I suspect we understand most of the testing techniques by now — the next trick is how to apply them with the full knowledge of what is going on in our heads.