Understanding and Changing Memories

Can drugs or coping mechanisms help people handle their fear of public speaking? The latest research provides some answers.

The fear of public speaking has been written about in many places, including here on these (electronic) pages. The EMS team often gets the opportunity to work with people who find it extraordinarily difficult to get up in front of a group and speak. Is this a real fear, based on an actual memory of a horrible experience early in their life? Is it a fear based on other memories in life? Or is it just an extremely anxious response triggered by their brain?

Last month, we watched an episode on PBS’ Nova series called “Memory Hackers” that looked at different ways scientists are studying human memories, working to identify how our brains form memories, store them over time, and also how those memories might change over time.

We were particularly interested in a subject called reconsolidation, which claims that memory is not like a page of a book that gets closed and then stored again on a bookshelf, but more like a computer file that has to be re-saved every time it is recalled. This means that you might recall a memory, then theoretically add to that memory—or even change it—before re-saving it. Dr. Karim Nader of McGill University showed how laboratory rats that learned to fear a particular sound could re-learn a different response—to that same sound that had caused them to panic—with the help of a drug that blocked pathways used to re-store the memory in the brain.

It got even more interesting when we saw how another doctor, Merel Kindt, worked with people to help them overcome specific fears by using the drug Propranolol, a beta blocker often used to manage blood pressure. In the documentary, we saw her treat a man who was able to overcome his overwhelming fear of spiders relatively quickly, first recalling the memory by being brought up close to a tarantula, then taking the drug, and finally—after a period of time—returning to the tarantula, which he now was able to touch, pet and hold. He had successfully blocked the restoration of the old memory and formed a new one from his recent experience, one in which he was not afraid of spiders. Kindt says that she had similar findings with dozens of patients she has studied using the same approach, even one year later, and explained that they are now using the technique to help people overcome drug addiction and PTSD.

So if you’re one of those who would rather be in the box than delivering the eulogy*, there are reasons to be hopeful. A quick search shows that people do in fact take this same beta blocker, Propranolol, to help them overcome the anxiety and fear of speaking in front of an audience. People who have tried it report that they still feel the nervousness, but that their physical reactions are minimized.

We’re not telling our clients and readers to go out and start taking a new drug, but rather that there are multiple ways in which people are able to deal with their fears of presenting. Many people we work with simply find comfort in realizing that they can just go up and trust their instincts, become familiar with a few Fundamentals, and ultimately trust themselves to BE themselves in from of a crowd. Others go for personal motivation—“I’m going to make that guy smile” or “No one cares how I feel!” Many of our clients have found that coaching, repetition, meditation and other techniques help them feel less nervous—and more confident—at the podium.

But if nothing is working for you, it may be helpful to know that scientists are out there constantly learning more about how our brains help us to manage our anxiety, and may be coming up with new treatments that will help ease your fears of speaking in public.

Here’s a link to the hour-long Nova program on YouTube. The part of the program we discuss begins around 22:30 and continues for 15 minutes.

* From the joke attributed to Jerry Seinfeld, who said that he read a survey showing that people identified public speaking as the #1 thing they fear—death is #2. “This means that, to the average person at a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

Eliot M. Shapiro, EMS Communications Co-founder and Principal, is an experienced training facilitator and presentation coach with a passion for public speaking and teaching. For 20+ years, he has helped individuals and teams realize their own potential, sharing his enthusiasm with thousands of people. He lives by the same philosophy he encourages in his clients: you don’t always have to act serious to be taken

Since 1998, EMS Communications has been on a mission to “rid the world of boring presentations, one speaker at a time!” They accomplish this by helping individuals and teams improve their leadership, presentation and communication skills. Their services include private executive coaching, customized corporate workshops and open-to-the-public presentation skills seminars.